News Analysis: The Union Pacific dispute and safety

The BLE's January 27 strike of the Union Pacific Railroad (UP) comes in the wake of a series of increasingly aggressive steps by the railroad, which threaten to compromise the safety of its workers.

UP management has drastically reduced the ability of BLE members to take much needed rest days from work. These rest days are essential, as they greatly reduce the risk of on-the-job fatigue-related accidents and injuries.

Many locomotive engineers are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and often are 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.

Since January 1, however, UP management has taken three significant actions, which the BLE believes increase the potential for fatigue-related accidents, injuries and fatalities.

"These changes put workers at risk," said BLE International President Edward Dubroski. "In 1996, Union Pacific had a year-long 'safety meltdown.' There was a rash of 15 accidents involving Union Pacific trains, many of which were fatigue-related, causing 13 deaths. Union Pacific's actions reverse three key remedial measures to combat fatigue."

What directly led to the work stoppage was UP's unilateral imposition of new, draconian qualification requirements for personal leave days, without complying with the notice and bargaining mandates contained in the Railway Labor Act. Under these requirements many engineers, who operate long-distance trains and worked 100 percent of the time they were scheduled last year, no longer qualify for personal leave days.

"Unfortunately, the Railway Labor Act gives railroads wide latitude to abuse workers, but this latitude is not without limits," Dubroski said. "Union Pacific stepped way, way over the line when it effectively stole these personal leave days by changing the qualification requirements. The proper way to make the sort of change UP has forced upon us is to bargain for it. In fact, we have been in negotiations since November 1, 1999, and the subject was never raised. We cannot back down in the face of a potential safety threat to our members."

The BLE will continue to focus on attempts by UP to improve its bottom line at the expense of safety.


2001 Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers