Rail unions claim BNSF deferred some locomotive maintenance

Three railroad unions representing mechanical workers have filed a lawsuit against BNSF over claims that it violated the Railway Labor Act for not working with union members in good faith over the maintenance of the railroad’s locomotives. 

The unions — International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) District 19, and International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers-Mechanical and Engineering Department (SMART-MD) — filed the lawsuit with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri in late February. They argue that BNSF is outsourcing routine locomotive inspection, maintenance and repair work because it furloughed hundreds of union-affiliated employees. The unions also argue that BNSF has been deferring maintenance of its locomotive fleet, adhering to a minimum standard. 

BNSF has shut down numerous maintenance shops since 2020, and the railroad also delayed recalling furloughed mechanical workers, the unions said in the Feb. 24 court filing. When many workers declined to return, the railroad didn’t fill those positions immediately. Since 2020, mechanical electricians represented by IBEW have seen a net loss of 111 employees, while railroad sheet metal workers saw a net loss of 50 employees and workers represented by IAM saw a net loss of approximately 580 employees, according to the unions. 

As maintenance shops were closing and fewer workers were available, BNSF since September 2021 “began deferring regularly scheduled maintenance of its locomotives, limiting inspections and repairs to federal items only. In other words, locomotives that were in the shop were only inspected and repaired to meet the minimum standards required by federal law so they could continue to legally operate. All other necessary regularly scheduled maintenance was otherwise deferred,” the lawsuit said. 

The lawsuit also alleges that when BNSF sought to follow scheduled inspections as federally mandated, the railroad didn’t have sufficient resources available and so it contracted workers. 

But outsourcing labor to the extent that BNSF has done so violates the Railway Labor Act, the unions said in their lawsuit, adding that the railroad continued to generate millions in revenue during this time frame.

“BNSF’s actions, including laying locomotives up in storage; permanently closing mechanical shops; furloughing hundreds of qualified mechanical employees and failing to timely recall them; deferring regularly scheduled inspections and maintenance of locomotives; failing to maintain adequate staffing levels capable of performing the necessary and foreseeable inspection and maintenance work; and planning to implement a 0% overtime initiative for 2023, left BNSF unable to timely perform the most basic locomotive inspection and maintenance functions of a railroad,” the lawsuit said.

“BNSF’s current locomotive inspection backlog is not an accident or the result of events outside BNSF’s control, but is the result of BNSF’s own affirmative decisions. These actions demonstrate a failure by BNSF to exert every reasonable effort to maintain its agreements with the Unions. Furthermore, BNSF’s deliberate course of action, culminating in its January 5 pronouncement that it was subcontracting regularly scheduled inspection, maintenance, and repair work historically performed by employees represented by the Unions, constitutes a bad-faith attempt to evade its contractual obligations.”

In a Tuesday news release, the unions asserted that in light of the events surrounding the derailment of a Norfolk Southern train in East Palestine, Ohio, and the ensuing calls to bolster freight rail safety, BNSF should be more proactive not only in conducting maintenance on its locomotives beyond the minimum standards but also in working with seasoned mechanics instead of contracted workers.

“With railroad safety top of mind following the recent tragedy in East Palestine, Ohio, it is incumbent on North America’s rail carriers to take their responsibilities to their customers, workers, and the communities they operate in seriously,” said IBEW International President Kenneth W. Cooper. “BNSF has been shuttering maintenance shops and delaying basic locomotive inspection and maintenance at the same time it has earned record profits. As we continue to learn of the prolonged and severe impacts coming out of Ohio, it’s important now, more than ever, that inspection and repair of locomotives are performed by the experienced and trained members of the IBEW and other unions.”

Said IAM International President Robert Martinez Jr.: “After the tragic incident that occurred in Ohio, the last thing BNSF needs to be considering is the outsourcing of maintenance and inspections for its locomotives. Our members dedicate their lives to ensure locomotives are properly maintained and safe to carry goods throughout our nation. We join with IBEW and SMART-MD in demanding BNSF adhere to the contracts that we have been operating under for decades, rather than putting profits ahead of the safety of the communities in which they move through on a daily basis.”

FreightWaves reached out to BNSF for comment.

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