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BNSF Railroad Unions Can't Strike Over New Attendance Policy, Federal Judge Rules

FORT WORTH (CBSDFW.COM/AP) -  Fort Worth-based BNSF railroad's two biggest unions that represent 17,000 workers won't be able to go on strike over a new attendance policy they say would penalize employees for missing work for any reason.

A federal judge ruled Tuesday, Jan. 25, that a strike would likely violate federal law because under their contracts railroad unions aren't allowed to strike over minor disputes.

Instead, those must be settled through arbitration or negotiation.

Judge Mark Pittman said a strike would hurt BNSF and could cause significant damage to the economy because of the role the railroad plays in delivering all kinds of goods.

"The record further establishes that a strike would exacerbate our current supply-chain crisis — harming the public at large, not just BNSF," Pittman wrote.

The Fort Worth, Texas-based railroad went to court earlier this month after the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, and the Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation unions said they were considering going on strike to protest the new policy that is set to go into effect on Feb. 1.

The unions said they were surveying their members about whether they would support a strike because the stringent new rules would sanction workers for taking sick time or time off to attend a family member's funeral. They said the rules would provide an incentive for workers to come in when they are sick even if they have COVID-19 symptoms and punish local union officials who take time off to represent workers at disciplinary hearings.

Union officials didn't immediately respond Tuesday to questions about the ruling.

BNSF released the following statement on the ruling:

"We are pleased that today's ruling allows us to move forward working together with our employees to do what we do best in providing service that is essential to our customers and the American economy. 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. 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. We continue to take employee feedback on the program and that feedback is being reviewed. 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 working together with our employees, we believe we can adapt to meet today's competitive freight environment."

BNSF said it came up with the new system to modernize its policy and give its employees an easier way to see where they stand under the rules.

BNSF is one of the nation's largest railroads, and it operates 32,500 miles of track in 28 western states.

(© Copyright 2022 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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