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Labor holds rally in Fort Madison to oppose ‘draconian’ attendance policy

Rich Egger
Tri States Public Radio

Representatives from organized labor in southeast Iowa are standing in solidarity to oppose what they call a draconian attendance policy at BNSF Railway. They rallied in the shadow of Fort Madison’s historic, newly restored train depot to raise awareness about the railway’s policy known as Hi-Viz.

“This rally is not about money. This rally is about the fact that they’re trying to steal the lives of the people that are running these trains and making their money for them,” said Jeff Kurtz, a retired locomotive engineer and a former state representative in Iowa.

“The people that are controlling the wealth – they’re trying to steal their lives because they think they can squeeze another dollar out of them. And it’s not right.”

What is Hi-Viz?

Under the attendance policy, employees begin with 30 points. They lose points when they miss an assigned shift, and can lose multiple points for missed calls or being a no-show. They could also be penalized for not working the day before or after a vacation or personal day.

Workers who lose all their points would be suspended and have their point total reset to 15. A worker whose point total drops to or below zero for a third time would lose their job.

Opponents said the policy makes it difficult for employees to take a day off for a doctor’s appointment, a hospital visitation, or for other reasons without being penalized.

BNSF implemented Hi-Viz on February 1. Railway Age details the policy in greater detail on its website. The article also outlines newly announced changes to the policy that provide the opportunity for bonus points for workers.

Dennis Pierce, President of The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, issued a statement in which he called the changes “little more than fluff” and said they were made without input from rail unions.

The rally took place outside the Riverview Pavilion, just across the train tracks from Fort Madison's historic train depot.
Rich Egger
The rally took place outside the Riverview Pavilion, just across the train tracks from Fort Madison's historic train depot.

The rally in Fort Madison

Around 40 people gathered outside the Riverview Pavilion, between the railroad tracks and the Mississippi River, on an overcast and wind-whipped afternoon to speak out against HiViz. The Lee County Labor Chapter organized the event, called the “Save Our Time Off, Save Our Families” rally.

Kurtz told the crowd that Warren Buffett and Katie Farmer should be fired. Buffett is the chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, which acquired BNSF Railway in 2009, and Farmer is CEO of BNSF.

“They’re going to be fine. But it’s you guys that they’re going to squeeze every last nickel out of,” Kurtz said.

He said the attendance policy could lead to fatigue and stress, which could harm a worker’s physical, mental, and emotional health.

Carrie Duncan, Chief Steward at the Iowa Army Ammunition plant in Middletown and Vice President North of the Lee County Labor Chapter. "This is damn wrong as the railroad workers are literally under attack by corporate greed.”
Rich Egger
Carrie Duncan, Chief Steward at the Iowa Army Ammunition plant in Middletown and Vice President North of the Lee County Labor Chapter. "This is damn wrong as the railroad workers are literally under attack by corporate greed.”

Carrie Duncan, Chief Steward at the Iowa Army Ammunition plant in Middletown and Vice President North of the Lee County Labor Chapter, told rally-goers they should not forget the union battles fought by their forefathers.

She also said the “BNSF railroad barons” are trying to take complete control of their workforce and their families.

“This iron-fisted attendance policy known as Hi-Viz must be extinguished, once and for all,” Duncan said. She said the policy could become like a wildfire if it is not extinguished. “And it’s going to spread to other railroads, it’s going to spread to the airlines, it’s going to spread to the factories everywhere in this country.”

At various times, Duncan referred to the attendance policy as preposterous, demoralizing, and tyrannical.

After the rally, she told Tri States Public Radio, “Labor wants to work with management to create a more fluid and harmonious relationship in the workplace, and right now they’re taking a step backward with Hi-Viz.”

She said the company should have worked out the policy through negotiations with workers instead of just imposing it.

Charlie Wishman, President of the Iowa Federation of Labor, noted that workers at other businesses are on strike, including at CNH in Burlington. He said the opposition to Hi-Viz is part of a larger struggle for workers’ rights across the country.

“We stand with you against these rights that have been taken. I mean, we’re fighting over the eight-hour work day again. This is crazy,” said Wishman.

He said business and labor should be moving forward instead of struggling through battles fought 100 years ago.

He also noted that the BNSF workers’ right to strike was taken away by a federal judge, who said a strike would create a worker shortage that would jeopardize the supply chain.

Wishman blamed executives for causing the worker shortage.

Jesse Case, Secretary-Treasurer and Principal Officer of Teamsters Local 238 in Iowa – the state’s largest local union -- said BNSF’s owners are going to make their money no matter what, so their workers should not have to choose between work and family.

“It’s nothing but greed. It’s nothing but corporate greed. It’s the same old story from the beginning of our country and it’s going on today with people like Warren Buffett,” Case said.

He said BNSF is creating a situation where people want to quit their jobs.

The company’s response

Ben Wilemon, External Corporate Communications Manager for BNSF, issued the following the response to Tri States Public Radio:

BNSF implemented an attendance policy in February designed to provide employees, known as Hi-Viz, designed to improve the consistency of crews being available for their shifts to run trains which in turn drives service consistency and reliability for our customers while also improving predictability and transparency for our crews around when they will go to work. The attendance policy applies to Track, Yard and Engine (TY&E) and yardmaster employees. 

As with any change, it’s important to monitor progress and adjust as needed. To that end, BNSF leadership made several changes just a month after the initial rollout and promised an additional review after 90 days. 

That review has now been completed and while the program is working as intended, BNSF has gathered feedback from employees, many of whom shared thoughtful ideas and suggestions. Considering that input, BNSF will make additional modifications to the program effective June 1 to provide additional clarity and flexibility to employees. 

It is important to note that there has been no change in how much time off an employee receives. More than 50% of train crew employees work less than 40 hours a week on average. Generally, train crew employees have over 3 to 4 weeks of paid vacation and over 10 Personal Leave Days. The number of Personal Leave Days was increased by 25% this year which makes it easier for employees to take time off. 

In fact, since starting Hi-Viz, we have seen more planned vacation days taken than before the change. In addition, employees can’t work more than 6 days in a row under federal law. Time off between each shift averages around 24 hours and since the attendance policy was implemented, we have seen that increase. 

We currently have more train crew employees today than we did a year ago, coupled with a robust 2022 hiring plan that already has 300 new employees currently being trained. 

Class I freight railroads are currently in collective bargaining process and BNSF remains committed and eager to work toward a swift and fair resolution to the collective bargaining process. In anticipation of an agreement, BNSF continues to set aside funds for pay raises. The sooner an agreement is reached, the sooner our union-represented employees get pay increases and we can all focus on what we do best—running one of the largest freight rail networks in the world. 

BNSF team members drive our success and we couldn't deliver the nation's goods without them. We are committed to adapting together to meet today's competitive freight environment. 

Tri States Public Radio produced this story.  TSPR relies on financial support from readers and listeners in order to provide coverage of the issues that matter to west central Illinois, southeast Iowa, and northeast Missouri. As someone who values the content created by TSPR's news department please consider making a financial contribution.

Rich is TSPR's News Director.