Watch Now

Maintenance-of-way union sues BNSF over workforce shortages

Lawsuit appears similar to litigation filed by 3 other unions in February

A BNSF train heads to its next destination. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

The union representing maintenance-of-way (MOW) workers at BNSF is suing the railway for using contractors and not growing the ranks of MOW employees, according to a statement from the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way – Employes Division (BMWED).

The lawsuit is meant “to combat the carrier’s bad faith in dealing with the Union by its depletion of its Maintenance of Way workforce and its blatant disregard of contractual obligations intended to protect our members and their work,” BMWED said in a Tuesday release. MOW employees are responsible for constructing, repairing, rehabilitating and maintaining BNSF’s track and right-of-way, as well as bridges, buildings and other structures, according to the suit.

In the lawsuit, filed Friday in the U.S. District Court in Nebraska, BMWED asserts that BNSF has not sought to grow the number of MOW employees even though MOW head count has fallen by 19% at BNSF since 2016. Instead, the railroad has relied increasingly on contracting out work, attorneys representing BMWED said in the suit. The use of contractors is significant because it’s being viewed as a way to subvert prescribed benefits and general wage increases. 

As a result, BNSF is not maintaining its collective bargaining agreement with BMWED and is violating the Railway Labor Act, according to the union.

“The fact of the matter is BNSF is attempting to shirk its responsibility under the Railway Labor Act in an effort to reduce its labor cost and enrich itself at the expense of our members,” Tim Bunch, George Loveland, John Mozinski and Dennis Albers, the four BMWED general chairmen on BNSF, said in a joint statement. “They are ignoring past agreements on manpower, offering up flimsy excuses for their attrition, and laughing all the way to the bank. We have been patient and have waited for BNSF to rectify this situation on its own but that has not proved beneficial. So we now turn to the court to enforce action.”

In response to the lawsuit, BNSF defended itself, pointing to its safety record and billions in capital investments.

“There is an existing arbitration process in place to handle these types of issues. However, allegations questioning our commitment to safety at BNSF are simply inaccurate,” BNSF told FreightWaves in a statement. “Over the past five years, BNSF has committed nearly $17.5 billion for capital investments, of which nearly $13 billion has been allocated to maintenance. BNSF’s investment in safety is reflected in our rate of railroad equipment incidents, which has been the lowest among the four Class 1 railroads for the last seven years.”

The suit also contends that BNSF is facing workforce shortages, which in turn have led to delayed or deferred maintenance of track, rail and right of way. That action leads to “slow orders” on certain tracks, which can reduce train speeds and temper shippers’ expectations for timely service, BMWED said.

The lawsuit appears to have claims similar to those made by three other unions that BNSF has been relying more on contracted workers to perform locomotive repairs and maintenance.

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers District 19, and International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers-Mechanical and Engineering Department — filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri in February. That suit also suggests that BNSF is violating the Railway Labor Act by not working with union members in good faith over the maintenance of the railroad’s locomotives.

That lawsuit is still ongoing.

Meanwhile, BMWED’s late July filing of the lawsuit came as the National Transportation Safety Board released its findings on what may have caused a fatal September 2021 derailment of an Amtrak train in Montana. The train was running on track owned by BNSF. 

NTSB said “poor track conditions” contributed to the derailment, and the agency urged BNSF and other Class I railroads to increase the frequency of autonomous and human inspections.

Subscribe to FreightWaves’ e-newsletters and get the latest insights on freight right in your inbox.

Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Joanna Marsh.

F3: Future of Freight Festival


The second annual F3: Future of Freight Festival will be held in Chattanooga, “The Scenic City,” this November. F3 combines innovation and entertainment — featuring live demos, industry experts discussing freight market trends for 2024, afternoon networking events, and Grammy Award-winning musicians performing in the evenings amidst the cool Appalachian fall weather.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Joanna Marsh

Joanna is a Washington, DC-based writer covering the freight railroad industry. She has worked for Argus Media as a contributing reporter for Argus Rail Business and as a market reporter for Argus Coal Daily.