BY MARILEE TAYLOR AND JOSHUA CARROLL
CHICAGO - Some 2,500 rail workers, members of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees (BMWE), struck the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad May 12. These workers are responsible for laying and maintaining tracks, railroad bridges, and buildings. The walkout was in response to company attacks aimed at gutting their seniority system and work rules.
Picket lines here went up at about 5:00 a.m. at the freight yards, before first shift workers and some road crews went on duty. Union rail workers, including those in the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and the United Transportation Union, refused to cross the picket lines. In La Crosse, Wisconsin, road crews turned around and left after being called for trains and encountering the pickets at the yard. In the Chicago area yards, first shift workers and road crews honored the picket lines. Rail bosses forced those coming off of the midnight shift to continue working, but were unable to move any trains. The yards were shut tight.
The striking locals - from Nebraska, Illinois, Missouri, Wisconsin, Iowa, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and South Dakota -are made up of workers on the former Burlington Northern properties of what is now the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe. Although the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe railroads merged in 1994, each of the former entities continues to hold separate agreements with the BMWE.
The key issues in the strike were the railroad's attempt to slash the number of seniority districts by almost two- thirds and its attempt to change the way workers gain seniority on new positions. This would mean a geographical expansion of the areas for which individual crews of workers are responsible, forcing them to work assignments much farther from home. It would also increase the amount of time required before a worker gains seniority rights on a new positions.
Around 10:30 a.m. the picket lines came down after U.S. district judge Robert Maloney of Dallas, Texas, granted the BNSF a temporary restraining order against the strike. The restraining order remains in effect until May 21, when a federal hearing will determine whether to make it a permanent injunction.
The overwhelming majority of workers interviewed, both members of the BMWE and others, felt the strike was justified. Following the work action, there has been a great deal of discussion among railworkers about how to fight for better working conditions. A number of workers have expressed the opinion that the government has no right to intervene in workers' struggles against the railroad.
Michael Rogers, a 25-year-old BMWE member, said, "This is unfair for the working class. President Clinton and Mrs. Clinton say they want parents to spend more time with their families. But how can they say that when the company reneges on an agreement, so you're forced to work for long periods of time, far away from home. And then when you fight it in the most effective way, through your union, they order you back to work?"
Marilee Taylor is a member of the United Transportation
Union at the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe railroad in
Chicago. Alyson Kennedy, a member of the Oil, Chemical and
Atomic Workers union, contributed to this article.
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