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Unions allege Norfolk Southern job cuts saddled engineers with other duties

Changes began after NS deployed precision scheduled railroading, unions say as they file lawsuits

Two unions are suing Norfolk Southern over locomotive engineers' responsibilities. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

Two rail unions are alleging that Norfolk Southern has trimmed its workforce so deeply as a result of precision scheduled railroading (PSR) that it is now forcing some locomotive engineers to perform duties as conductors and brakemen. 

The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and the Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART-TD) have filed lawsuits in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, claiming NS violated the Railway Labor Act. 

The lawsuits, filed Thursday, contend that NS (NYSE: NSC) has been forcing engineers represented by BLET to work in conductor assignments. BLET says NS is unfairly taking advantage of a clause in the 2015 collective bargaining agreement related to workforce scheduling, according to a court filing.

Conductors and brakemen are represented by SMART-TD. 

In announcing the lawsuits, SMART-TD and BLET said NS has been “willfully” depleting its workforce and using locomotive engineers to fill the responsibilities left open by departing conductors and brakemen.

“The shortage of conductors and brakemen is so severe that NS started ordering locomotive engineers — under threat of termination for insubordination — to work conductor positions even though both the BLET Agreement and the SMART-TD Agreement prohibit the use of locomotive engineers in train service positions,” said SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson and BLET National President Daniel Pierce in a joint statement.

“Today, our unions have initiated legal actions that are intended to compel NS to follow our contracts and obey the laws of our land,” they continued. “NS cannot lawfully lay off roughly 4,000 conductors and brakemen, and then give their work to another craft. Nor can NS lawfully deprive locomotive engineers of the jobs, wages and working conditions to which they are contractually entitled by forcing them to perform the work of other crafts.”

The unions said NS’ deployment of PSR, an operational model that seeks to streamline operations, contributed to NS’ efforts to eliminate jobs. 

“Because of PSR, NS has eliminated the jobs of over 35% of its operating crew members since December 2018. NS also has been fighting since the summer of 2019 to cut the size of operating crews by half,” Ferguson and Pierce said.

In response to a request for a statement, NS said it doesn’t comment on pending and ongoing lawsuits.

According to employee headcount data that NS has supplied to the Surface Transportation Board, the number of employees who belong to the train and engine category has fallen 33% over the past five years, from 11,186 in September 2016 to 7,461 in August 2021. The train and engine category includes locomotive engineers, train conductors and brakemen, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.

Employee totals submitted by Norfolk Southern to the Surface Transportation Board.

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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.