- David Williams
Attempts to Strike at BNSF Railway Derailed Amidst Pandemic Labor Rights Surge
Two unions representing over 17,000 employees of the Texas-based BNSF railway company attempted to strike over a new attendance policy but were met with disappointment on January 25th when a federal judge granted a temporary restraining order preventing the strike from going into effect.
Under the new “Hi-Viz” policy, workers are assigned 30 points which are then deducted for absences. Periods of unavailability are measured in 24-hour blocks, with different point penalties assigned depending on the circumstance. These penalties can range from as little as two points to as much as twenty-five, depending on the length, severity, and timing of unavailable periods. Workers could earn back four points by being available to work for fourteen days in a row, including being available to work on weekends. Running out of points would subject a worker to disciplinary action, which follows a three-strikes principle: first a ten-day suspension, then a twenty-day suspension, and finally dismissal following a third point depletion.
Unions saw this policy as an attempt to squeeze more labor out of already overworked employees, saying as much in a joint statement issued after the policy was revealed, “Our members have worked tirelessly to keep goods moving during a global pandemic, but the railroad is once again placing monetary profits over people to appease shareholders and Wall Street. Our membership is tired, frustrated and fed up with the treatment they continue to receive.”
The unions further alleged that the policy penalizes employees for “any time they take off work for practically any reason.” This raises many concerns in light of the ongoing pandemic, as the unions noted in court documents, saying the policy "will effectively force COVID-19 positive engineers who fear for their jobs to eschew tests or eschew staying home from work to stop the spread.”
Indeed the pandemic has been a lynchpin for labor rights movements nationwide, especially in recent months, as high profile strikes have dominated the news and workers have quit their jobs in record numbers, with over 38 million quitting in 2021.
But why is this happening? With the pandemic making everyday life substantially less stable, holding down a job would seem to be of the utmost importance. A December 2021 Indeed survey of 1,000 people who "voluntarily resigned from at least two jobs since March 2020” sought to answer that question. 92% of survey respondents reported quitting because "the pandemic made them feel life is too short to stay in a job they weren't passionate about.”
The survey’s findings indicate that the nationwide shock brought on by the pandemic led workers to challenge elements of their lives they had previously taken for granted. That so many have resigned only indicates the shocking number of people who feel compelled to work jobs they dislike because they feel no alternative is possible.
The same principle applies to the recent increases in strikes and attempts at unionization, as workers are more willing to challenge their employers' actions. Had it been allowed to proceed, the BNSF strike would have joined the ranks of other high-profile strikes at companies like John Deere, Kellogg’s, Frito-Lay, and many more.
Yet as previously mentioned, the motion to strike at BNSF was blocked on January 25th by Federal Judge Mark Pittman of Fort Worth, Texas, who granted a temporary restraining order to the BNSF company. Judge Pittman cited federal law preventing railroad unions from striking over “minor disputes”, and also claimed the strike would cause significant damage to the Economy if put into effect.
The unions appealed the ruling to the secretaries of Transportation and Labor, and while administration officials said they were monitoring the situation, the policy was allowed to go into effect on February 8th, signaling to most that the strike is unlikely to happen.
Roadblocks like these indicate that the struggle for labor rights is very much an ongoing process even as public awareness improves. The annual Bureau of Labor Statistics report on union demographics published in January makes this all the more clear: “In 2021, the number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions continued to decline (-241,000) to 14.0 million, and the percent who were members of unions was 10.3 percent.” By contrast, in 1983, the first year with available data, 20.1% of workers were union members, numbering 17.7 million.
If there is any time for these numbers to improve, however, it is now. As previously noted, national labor awareness is higher than ever in recent memory, and labor victories are becoming more common. The successful unionization at a Starbucks branch in Buffalo, New York has already sparked dozens of other union petitions at Starbucks locations nationwide, including four in Boston, demonstrating the snowball effect of change.
Furthermore, the Biden administration is expected to strengthen labor laws, making strikes and unions easier to start and maintain. Biden vowed to be the “most pro-union president” on the campaign trail, and as president appointed longtime labor advocate and former Boston mayor Marty Walsh as his secretary of labor, indicating a commitment to reform.
The pandemic provided a valuable paradigm shift in the way Americans view work, challenging the notion that disliking your working conditions was simply a fact of the system, and not a problem to be overcome. With labor victories growing more frequent, and both public and institutional support steadily growing, workers can remain optimistic for an America where failed strikes like this one are seen as the exception rather than the rule.
So while it looks like the end of the tracks for the BNSF workers' attempts to strike, it’s full steam ahead for labor rights in America.