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Market Matters Blog           01/25 17:21

   Judge Grants Temporary Restraining Order to Block Feb. 1 BNSF Worker Strike

   A federal judge on Tuesday granted BNSF's request for a temporary 
restraining order blocking two of its unions from going on strike Feb. 1 over a 
new attendance policy that employees say would penalize workers for missing 
work.

Mary Kennedy
DTN Basis Analyst

   A federal judge on Tuesday granted BNSF's request for a temporary 
restraining order blocking union workers from striking over a new company 
attendance policy set to go into effect on Feb. 1.

   BNSF had asked a federal judge to prevent a Feb. 1 strike after the 
Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and the Transportation 
Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and 
Transportation (SMART-TD) union both threatened to strike over the new 
attendance policy they say would penalize workers for missing work.

   On Jan. 25, William Jungbauer, president of Yaeger & Jungbauer Barristers, a 
St. Paul, Minnesota-based law firm that specializes in railroad law, reported 
on the firm's Facebook page that a judge granted the railroad the temporary 
restraining order, which will expire Feb. 8, averting a strike for now.

   In announcing the new attendance policy, BNSF stated in an FAQ it sent to 
employees that the company "must improve crew availability to remain 
competitive in the industry" and that their revised Hi-Viz program would help 
with this issue "by incentivizing consistent and reliable attendance." BNSF 
went on to state that a reduction in absenteeism would improve predictability 
of work assignments.

   However, the affected employees and their unions made clear that they view 
BNSF's approach to this issue as a juxtaposition. That is, if the carrier 
instead focused its efforts on predictable scheduling of assignments and 
competent management of its furloughed employees, there would be no need to 
impose such draconian attendance policies, noted BLET.

   Following BNSF's announcement of the new attendance policy, members of the 
BLET and the SMART-TD who work for the BNSF Railway on Jan. 12 initiated steps 
to go on strike. Collectively, the two unions represent more than 17,000 active 
members at the BNSF.

   In a Jan. 13 news release, BLET and SMART-TD said BNSF's new attendance 
policy is a points-based system that "penalizes employees -- who in many cases 
have no assigned days off -- any time they take time off work for practically 
any reason."

   In the release, BLET President Dennis Pierce and SMART-TD President Jeremy 
Ferguson said the impending policy "repudiates numerous collectively bargained 
agreements currently in place throughout the BNSF system."

   They added, "It is so restrictive that employees would be penalized for 
missing work to attend the funeral of an immediate family member."

   Pierce and Ferguson said "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.

   "It also stands to take away any ability by our members to avoid working 
fatigued when they are routinely called without warning due to the complete 
lack of reliable train lineups, thus creating the potential for an even more 
unsafe railroad operation. So-called 'forced overtime' in an industry where 
safety is so critical not only repudiates our agreements, it stands to enact 
irreparable harm on hundreds of full time employees whose non workplace 
obligations prevent them from being at work every day of their life."

   WHAT WOULD A STRIKE MEAN FOR GRAIN SHIPMENTS?

   In addition to facing the threat of a possible strike, BNSF has been dealing 
with operating challenges due to extreme cold weather in the northern United 
States.

   In its most recent operations update on Jan. 21, BNSF said its operating 
teams were generating some improved service performance while still confronting 
a challenging operating environment in the North Region. Arctic cold has 
remained largely in place throughout much of the Northern Plains and Upper 
Midwest. Temperatures in many locations across North Dakota and Minnesota on 
Jan. 20 dropped to around 25 degrees Fahrenheit below zero.

   Air flow issues affected some trains in the region earlier that week, with 
stoppages that resulted in track outages on several subdivisions.

   "As we have reported, train length restrictions are necessary and additional 
locomotives are required to generate proper air flow for trains' braking 
systems in these extreme cold conditions. We have also experienced reduced 
productivity at some terminals in the region due to multiple switch and air 
flow issues." Since that Jan. 21 report, there has been more extreme cold in 
North Dakota and Minnesota, which likely has exacerbated the operations in the 
North Region.

   RUNNING BEHIND ON CARS

   According to their weekly grain car orders update to the Surface 
Transportation Board on Jan. 19, BNSF noted there were 1,539 grain cars in 
North Dakota one to 10 days past due and 650 cars 11 or more days past due. In 
Minnesota, there were 628 cars one to 10 days past due and 331 11 or more days 
past due. The total number of BNSF grain cars past due across their network was 
3,146 cars one to 10 days past due and 1,769 cars 11 or more days past due. 
BNSF also noted in the Jan. 19 report that the weekly average number of loaded 
and empty grain cars in revenue service that have not moved in 48 hours or 
greater was 1,247 loaded cars and 686 empty cars.

   Various shippers noted that BNSF is running roughly three weeks behind for 
grain dedicated train service placements and shuttle turns have been slow. That 
means that loaded shuttles sent to the Pacific Northwest have not been coming 
back in the normal timeframe. Shippers who rely on a 12- or so day turn in the 
winter (versus summer turns of seven or so days) have said that since the end 
of 2021 through present, some turns have been up to three weeks.

   While the snow and extreme cold since the end of December has had a part in 
those delays, the uptick in COVID-19 omicron variant cases has caused shortages 
of employees able to run trains and other railroad related duties. Meanwhile, 
secondary shuttle freight values continue to rise, which can cause elevators to 
weaken basis to cover higher freight costs.

   A strike, if it were to happen, would exacerbate the situation.

   Mary Kennedy can be reached at mary.kennedy@dtn.com

   Follow her on Twitter @MaryCKenn




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