Judge blocks strike over railroad’s virus safety precautions


A U.S. federal judge has blocked one of Union Pacific’s main unions from going on strike over its concerns about the railroad’s efforts to protect employees from the coronavirus.

The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division last month threatened to strike because it wants the Omaha, Nebraska-based railroad to strengthen its virus-safety precautions in the workplace. It also wants Union Pacific to offer its more than 30,000 employees full pay if they have to quarantine themselves.

But Judge Brian Buescher ruled Thursday that the union must address its concerns through contract talks with the railroad and it doesn’t have the right to strike now.

“The pandemic is not a work-specific safety concern for the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division employees,” Buescher wrote in his ruling. “Instead, the pandemic is, unfortunately, a worldwide and widespread problem confronting not just the BMWED employees, but individuals of all walks of life.”

The judge also agreed with the railroad that a strike would harm companies that rely on the railroad for shipping.

Union Pacific officials have defended their efforts to protect workers from the virus, and they have said the railroad is following the recommendations of public health experts. It has stepped up its efforts to sanitize locomotives and other equipment employees use and eliminated most meetings to keep workers from gathering in groups. It also requires employees to wear masks on the job.

“This order will allow Union Pacific to continue to meet the country’s freight demands, while we work with the BMWED towards our common commitment to ensure the safety of our employees,” Union Pacific spokeswoman Elizabeth Graham said.

Union officials said they haven’t decided whether to fight Thursday’s ruling in court, but they will continue to press for safety improvements at the railroad. They have have said the union has similar concerns about virus precautions at the other major railroads, but they decided to press the issue first with Union Pacific.

“We are very disappointed with Judge Buescher’s decision and believe that it will lead to more COVID-19 infections and death in our membership on the Union Pacific Railroad,” said Jed Dodd, the union’s national vice-president.

The union had said Union Pacific employees that have to quarantine themselves because they have been exposed to the virus aren’t being paid their full wages, and the railroad may not pay employees if they have to quarantine themselves multiple times, so there is an incentive to continue coming to work even when sick.

The union, which represents about 8,000 Union Pacific employees, also wanted the railroad to offer coronavirus testing regularly at its work sites, screen employees’ temperatures before they start work and do more to ensure social distancing.

Union Pacific is one of the nation’s largest railroads, and it operates 32,400 miles (52,000 kilometres) of track in 23 Western states.