BY HARRISON MANTAS for star-telegram.com
A U.S. District Court judge on Tuesday again blocked two railroad unions from striking over a new availability policy Fort Worth-based rail company BNSF says it needs to ensure proper staffing of its trains. District Court Judge Mark Pittman granted BNSF’s request for a preliminary injunction, saying the company is likely to prevail over the union in arbitration and that a threatened strike would cause irreparable harm to the rail company from which it could not recover damages. Tuesday’s ruling keeps the strike ban in place while the two sides negotiate over the availability policy.
The railway praised the ruling writing in an emailed statement, “today’s ruling upholds our ability to continue working with our employees to do what we do best – providing service that is essential to our customers and the American economy.” The statement defended the disputed policy saying it balances the railway’s need to staff trains while giving employees, “ample time for obligations outside of work, including planned vacations, personal leave days and unplanned absences.”
Representatives for the unions were unable to comment Tuesday. The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and the Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers, which represent roughly 17,000 railroad workers, threatened to strike starting Feb. 1 over an availability policy they say separates workers from their families. However, the court granted BNSF a temporary restraining order on Jan. 25 blocking any strike activity until Feb. 8. That restraining order was extended to Feb. 22 to allow for Pittman to rule on the permanent injunction. Under the system which went into effect Feb. 1, every conductor and engineer gets 30 points. If a railroad worker wants to take time off, they get points deducted from that total. Different days are given different point values. Being unavailable to work Monday to Thursday is a two-point deduction. Being unavailable on a Friday or Saturday is a four-point deduction. Missing a Sunday costs three points.
A worker can earn four points back by being available to work for 14 days in a row including weekends. However, the 14-day clock resets if a worker takes a day off. BNSF wrote in its statement it had made adjustments to this policy, saying the company continues to solicit feedback from employees to make further tweaks. “We understand that change can be an adjustment, but we believe we can adapt together to meet today’s competitive freight environment,” the statement read.