BNSF files federal lawsuit to block unions from striking

·3 min read
Jonathan Alcorn

BNSF Railway, one of the country’s largest freight companies, has asked a federal court to block thousands of union members who help transport agricultural and industrial goods nationwide from striking over a change in attendance policy set to take effect Feb. 1.

Both sides were in court Monday, but U.S. District Judge Mark T. Pittman of the Northern Texas District didn’t rule on the motion seeking a temporary restraining order.

In its lawsuit, BNSF said the two unions representing 17,000 workers would be in breach of their obligations because the nature of the dispute doesn’t rise to a level that would justify a work stoppage.

BNSF characterized the disagreement as a “minor dispute” over the interpretation of existing rights under its collective bargaining agreements with the unions, which means the matter must be resolved by negotiation or arbitration, not by striking, according to court records.

“Any disruption of BNSF’s operations would therefore have a serious impact on interstate and international commerce,” the company said in the Jan. 13 court filing.

The freight rail company hauled 4 million carloads of industrial products and agricultural commodities in 2020, according to company officials.

Members of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and the Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers have threatened to strike if the policy goes into effect next week.

They claim the new policy constitutes a unilateral change and a violation of their collective bargaining agreements that could be considered a “major” dispute. Neither the company nor the unions have publicly disclosed exactly what the changes are.

But the unions said on their websites that the new policy is a points-based system that penalizes employees — who in many cases have no assigned days off — whenever they take time off.

“This unprecedented BNSF policy repudiates direct and clear contract language, and in application, will attempt to force our members to report for duty without regard for their medical condition as we struggle to come out of a pandemic,” union presidents Dennis Pierce and Jeremy Ferguson said in a joint statement.

They said the changes also conflict with collective bargaining agreements the railway has with other unions.

BNSF, which has more than 30,000 employees, operates more than 30,000 miles of track in 28 states while serving thousands of industrial and commercial customers, dozens of whom have no other access to rail transportation, according to court records.

Workers play key roles in ensuring the safe movement of more than 1,000 daily trains, the documents said.

BNSF said in court papers that a strike would deprive shippers of transportation, hurt revenue, threaten the safety of the general public, force other employees out of work and cause immediate and substantial schedule disruptions.

BNSF said that it has a long history of unilaterally changing practices and standards governing attendance and that it has periodically done so dating back a few decades, according to court documents.

For example, in 1999, BNSF adopted a policy requiring train service employees to be available for a certain number of days a month, and failing to do so would lead to disciplinary actions, company officials said in court records.

Unions fought that decision, claiming the disagreement was a "major dispute," but a court ruled it "minor" and sent it to arbitration, the company said in court records.

“Those policy modifications extend a practice of more than two decades of BNSF unilaterally modifying and adopting attendance standards to meet the ever-changing needs of service,” the company said. “A strike could occur at any time prior to or after implementation of the new attendance program.”