BLE international president Edward Dubroski said the strike was "something we were forced to do. Union Pacific chose to unilaterally impose new working conditions on locomotive engineers, in defiance of federal law." Though the new policy affected engineers in four of UP's six districts, engineers struck system-wide. During the strike the BLE directed its members to let passenger rail service continue uninterrupted, both on the commuter trains in Chicago run by the UP and on Amtrak trains that run on UP track.
The walkout was a response by engineers to UP's attempts to force rail workers to work longer hours. Railroads, which operate around the clock, have one of the most grueling work schedules in industry. This is often at the heart of the constant tug of war between the rail bosses and labor over control of working conditions. Getting enough rest, that is, hours off the job, is essential for safely performing the work. While the federal "Hours of Service" law restricts a workday in rail to 12 hours, there are no restrictions on how many consecutive days a rail worker can be forced to work.
The Locomotive Engineer newsletter explains that "many locomotive engineers are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and are often required to work shifts for more than 12 consecutive hours, although train operation beyond 12 hours is forbidden by federal law. Thus, guaranteed rest days provide a key countermeasure to fatigue." The BLE points to three actions by the rail bosses that "increase the potential for fatigue-related accidents, injuries, and fatalities."
First, UP has reduced the number of slots on "extra boards," the pool of workers who are on call to replace someone working a regular job. This means getting called out more frequently while the company makes it more difficult to obtain days off. Secondly, the carrier is eliminating "7&3" extra boards, which automatically grant engineers three days of rest following seven consecutive days of work. And third, the company unilaterally imposed new restrictions on taking personal leave days. It was this last action that forced the walkout.
Rather than simply being on call for 150 days a year to receive personal leave days, UP decided engineers must now work 150 days, before getting a personal day off. Brian Bernhardt, an engineer from Council Bluffs, Iowa, told the Omaha World-Herald, "You wear a phone for all 24 hours. I never know if I had the day off until the clock strikes 12."
The question of safety on UP's property has been hotly contested for the last several years. In 1996, UP experienced a safety-meltdown in which 11 workers were killed in 15 main line accidents. This occurred following UP's takeover of the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad and the Southern Pacific.
The Federal Railroad Administration was forced to fine the carrier and impose inspections, revise safety guidelines, and set up an office in Omaha, where UP has its headquarters.
With a slowdown in economic growth underway, the railroads, which haul coal, automobiles, chemicals, foodstuffs, and other commodities, are seeing a decline in rail traffic. Several freight railroads have already announced layoffs and rail bosses are seeking ways to make union members work harder and longer hours.
BLE members struck the carrier at 11:00 p.m. Friday, January 26. By 2:20 a.m. Saturday morning Senior U.S. District Court Judge Lyle Strom in Omaha had issued a temporary restraining order forcing the engineers back to work. The judge called the questions of safety that precipitated the strike "minor."
Under the antiunion Railway Labor Act, rail workers are not allowed by federal law to strike over "minor" issues when a contract has not expired. Later that afternoon, Strom extended his order until a February 7 hearing. That hearing was postponed, and no new one has yet been set.
Company spokesman John Bromley said, "It [the strike] could have been a major problem for the national economy had it been allowed to continue."
On February 12 rail workers demonstrated in Omaha to support state legislation that would allow rail workers up to 72 hours off after seven consecutive days of work. The rally, sponsored by the United Transportation Union (UTU), was joined by BLE members, sheet metal workers, members of the International Association of Machinists, and others to support bills addressing fatigue relief measures and mandating two-person crews on all freight trains.
Bob Keller is a meat packer.
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