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Why Railroad Workers May Go On Strike

Railway workers have been stripped of almost all time-off, including weekends, under an extreme new attendance policy.

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Video produced and edited by Paula Pecorella and Meg Herschlein

BNSF Railway workers have been stripped of almost all time-off, including weekends, under an extreme new attendance policy. They’ve been working for 3 years with no contract and no raises. A federal judge barred workers from striking, so their families have been picketing on their behalf.

We talked to the railroad workers’ family members who travelled to Omaha, Nebraska, to protest BNSF’s owner Berkshire Hathaway. Below is a full transcript of our video.

Kelly Pettus: They haven’t had a raise in 3 years and they just implemented an inhumane attendance policy without a contract and that’s why we’re standing here, because they’re profiting in the billions and we can’t get a contract.

Families of BNSF railroad workers picketed a shareholders’ meeting on behalf of their husbands, who were stripped of virtually all time-off, including weekends, under an extreme new policy.

Kelly: I am a railroad wife.

Rachel Pharris: My husband has worked for BNSF for 20 years.

Erin Stephens-Marner: I’m married to an engineer.

Rachel: We’re here picketing about the Hi-Viz attendance policy, and so that’s new strict attendance policy that went into effect in February.

Workers fear they’ll be fired if they publicly criticize the new policy. So their families traveled to Omaha, Neb., from across the U.S. to protest BNSF’s owner Berkshire Hathaway, which made a record $6 billion profit from BNSF Railway in 2021.

Kelly: Railroad families are living a different life than most Americans understand.

Erin: He already was on call all the time, but he had the ability to take time off. So if he was sick, if he was tired, he was able to take time off without repercussions.

They live constantly at the mercy of the railroad, and this new attendance policy has created even more of that issue.

Rachel: The HiViz is a point system attendance policy. Yes we have personal leave days, vacation days, things like that, but there has to be availability for you to put in for those. There’s been time that my husband’s needed to take off. He has plenty of personal days but he can’t take off because there’s no allocations available. So he can either miss whatever appointment it was or lay off and take a penalty as far as points.

Erin: They are giving these guys a value on their lives and that is a point system, and they’re taking those away. And they’re saying if you’re sick, if your kids sick, you owe us this back.

Kelly: We don’t expect holidays, we don’t expect weekends, we understand that’s part of the life, but we’re to a point now where you can’t even get sick and your child can’t end up in the hospital without us being punished.

The U.S. rail industry has concentrated, and the major railways have severely cut staffing and time-off to increase profits. Railroad families say the impacts on their lives have been devastating.

Erin: He’ll get a ping on his phone that says, you gotta go to work at 3:00. They break the call. Ya gotta go to work at 5:00. They break the call. You’ve gotta go to work at 8:00. How is anybody gonna get rest for that? And for me, that creates the safety issue. These crews are out there working on little sleep with no rest, sometimes sick because of this new policy. It’s really not safe for our towns.

Rachel: You don’t know when you’re gonna sleep, you don’t know when the phone’s gonna ring, you don’t know if you’re gonna get enough sleep to go back to work. My husband and his engineer did hit a lady and she did pass away unfortunately.

Kelly: For 29 years my husband has gotten up all hours of the day and night. Our marriage barely survived, and we’re making it. We understand that railroad crews are gonna be separated, but when we can’t predict it, and we’re being punished for taking time that we need, it’s unbearable.

BNSF made a record $6 billion profit in 2021.

Erin: You know, we had a daughter that died for heart surgery, she died in heart surgery. And I think there’s no way we would’ve made it through that, there’s no way we would’ve made it through that under that policy. He would’ve been fired. ‘Cause he had to take time off, he had to take that time off. And to me, and I’m gonna get emotional about it, but there are guys out there—I’m hearing these stories of these guys that their wife has cancer, and they can’t take the days off. It’s not ok. It’s just not ok. 

Roughly 17,000 BNSF workers voted to strike over the policy, but a federal judge barred them doing so. Their unions are calling on Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to intervene and investigate BNSF.

Erin: The railroad created a supply chain crisis and now here we are having to deal with this policy. These guys, they wanna do a good job, they wanna continue to work on the railroad, but I think they feel trapped in this job.

Kelly: We just wanna send the message that a fair contract would make workers happy, and that means a pay increase and an attendance policy that we can work with that doesn’t punish us when our kids get sick or like when my baby ended up in the hospital 2 weeks ago where we spent more time worrying about attendance points than caring for our 2-year-old. 

Erin: There shouldn’t be record profits where they’re not coming to the table and actually negotiating a contract. They’ve worked this 3 years without a contract and it’s not okay.

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