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BLE families picket BNSF in California

Wives of fatigued BLE engineers rally for safer work schedules

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. ­ Families of BLE members picketed the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railroad last month, not to protest an accident, but to prevent one from happening.

Concerned for the safety of their husbands, sons and fathers, more than 150 family members of BNSF locomotive engineers staged an informational picket to reduce the long hours their loved ones are forced to work.

"They finally got tired of listening to the Carrier's same old song ­ 'just be patient, we're working on making it better,'" said BNSF Vice-General Chairman Pat Williams.

"It was their intent to do whatever it takes to stop this fatigue problem before it's too late and someone must die to prove their point."

According to Bakersfield Division 739 President Don Johnson, engineers are working an average of 250 hours per month.

"It all boils down to extra board numbers and reasonable lay-off," Brother Johnson said. "(BNSF) has kept their extra board numbers too low, and the result borders on involuntary servitude."

BLE Division 739 Local Chairman Steve Benson stressed that the rally was organized and carried out by wives and families, not BLE members.

"We lent moral support but didn't participate," he said.

The protest stemmed from a BNSF officer's response to a letter published in the local Bakersfield newspaper, written by a BNSF engineer.

He warned that fatigue was becoming a concern as engineers were forced to work more than 60 hours per week. The BNSF officer responded with his own letter, reporting that the average Bakersfield engineer worked no more than 40-45 hours per week.

"Those were bum figures," Brother Johnson said. "A few of the wives read it, called each other on the phone, and the next thing I knew they were having picket signs made.

"There were wives, sons, daughters, parents, grandparents, people in wheelchairs and babies in strollers out marching that day," he said.

The wife of a BNSF engineer spoke on the condition of anonymity, for fear the railroad with retaliate against her husband for her actions. She said safety was the main issue throughout the rally.

"We are really afraid there's going to be a wreck and that someone is going to be killed," she said. "You can't work that many hours and days in a row without falling asleep with your eyes open."

More feathers were ruffled in the days after the rally, when BNSF spokesman Richard Russack gave his two-cents to the Bakersfield Californian, the city's local newspaper.

"This is not a safety issue," Russack told the Californian. "This is not a fatigue issue. They would like to work less but earn the same money."

Brother Johnson disagreed.

"We need the right to make less money," he said. "We have zombie's running trains out here."

"If you want time off, you have to lie and say you're sick or a family member is sick," the anonymous wife said.

"They're harassed every time they call in and want to take a day off. If you want personal leave on the weekend, forget it. They're out of men and it's out of control."

Nearly one month after the protest, BLE members have yet to see a change in their work schedules. However, they are hoping it will have influence down the road.

"Outwardly, (BNSF) hasn't retracted any of their statements (from the newspaper)," Brother Benson said. "And on the labor relations side, we still don't know. But in the long run, we're hoping it will help get changes made in our contract.

"BNSF has spent a lot of money on research and fatigue projects. The protest reaffirmed the fact that these programs are needed here in Bakersfield. We need more than just talk."

Benson also mentioned that BNSF General Chairman John Mullen and Vice-General Chairman Williams were on hand to lend their support.

"They thought this mobilization effort was important enough to attend," Benson said.

Brother Johnson reported that California State Legislative Board Chairman Paul Morrison was highly cooperative in supporting the rally. ·



All photos submitted by BNSF Vice-General Chairman Pat Williams


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