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Rail Unions ‘Infuriated’ by Judge’s Order on BNSF Policy Dispute

Unions representing some 17,000 BNSF Railway Co. workers said late Tuesday they are weighing their options to appeal a judge’s decision that prohibits the groups from striking over a new attendance policy.

Leaders for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers—Transportation Division (SMART-TD) said they will decide in the next few days whether to file an appeal or agree to take the matter to arbitration.

Appealing to state lawmakers to intervene with new laws on rail carriers’ attendance policies is also up for consideration, the two groups said.

“Rest assured that we are all infuriated,” BLET national president Dennis Pierce and SMART-TD president Jeremy Ferguson said in their joint statement. “One of the largest and richest corporations in America has been given a free pass to continue forcing its employees to work, even when they or their families are sick, and when they are fatigued beyond the point of being able to work safely. BNSF is essentially thumbing its nose at the employees who make them billions of dollars in revenue.”

BNSF said Tuesday in a statement provided to Sourcing Journal it is “pleased” with the ruling.

The possibility of a strike that would have taken out more than half of the carrier’s workforce loomed large earlier this month over a new points-based attendance policy that went into effect Feb. 1.

BNSF aimed to block a strike via the courts by asking a judge to rule the dispute over the attendance policy “minor,” which sends it back to arbitration or negotiation under the federal Railway Labor Act. If the judge had ruled in favor of the unions and found the matter to be “major,” the move could have resulted in a work stoppage.

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The policy, called High Visibility (Hi-Viz), aimed to make it easier for employees to track missed days, according to BNSF.

The types of work days missed by employees are assigned certain point values that get deducted from a bank that starts out with 30 points. Once the balance reaches zero, an employee could face a 10-day suspension and 12-month review period. The suspension bumps up to 20 days if the bank is emptied a second time. A third time could be grounds for termination.

Workers have the option of earning credits if they make themselves available for work over 14 straight days, which would equate to four additional points.

“BNSF’s new system will provide more predictability for our train crews while also providing more reliable crew availability, which is essential to meeting our customers’ expectations and the demands posed by an increasingly competitive global supply chain,” BNSF said.

“Our program is designed to provide ample time for obligations outside of work, including planned vacations, personal leave days and unplanned absences while ensuring that we have sufficient employees available to work,” it added. “Based on initial feedback, BNSF has already modified the program. We look forward to continuing to work with our employees to gather input and refine the program if needed. BNSF team members drive our success and we couldn’t deliver the nation’s goods without them. We understand that change can be an adjustment, but we believe we can adapt together to meet today’s competitive freight environment.”

The unions argued the new policy went against terms of the current labor contract and did little to stem callouts.

Texas District Court Judge Mark T. Pittman described the policy as “harsh” in his opinion and order.