News & Reviews News Wire Some Montana Rail Link engineers question contract with BNSF Railway (corrected)

Some Montana Rail Link engineers question contract with BNSF Railway (corrected)

By Bill Stephens | January 5, 2023

| Last updated on January 6, 2023

Union local asks regulators for protection of current benefits package if early termination of MRL lease is approved

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A blue Montana Rail Link train works alongside a river with mountains in the background.
Montana Rail Link’s westbound Gas Local rolls along the Flathead River between Perma and Dixon, Mont. Tom Danneman

WASHINGTON — Some Montana Rail Link engineers have raised concerns about a loss or reduction of a range of benefits if regulators approve the early termination of the regional’s lease with BNSF Railway.

BNSF has reached agreements with all nine unions that represent MRL employees as part of its plan to resume control of the former Northern Pacific main line between Huntley, Mont., and Sandpoint, Idaho, which predecessor Burlington Northern leased to MRL in 1987.

But the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen Division 232, which represents 250 MRL employees in eastern Montana, told the Surface Transportation Board this week that they’re concerned about what they say is a loss of benefits and seniority.

Operating craft employees at MRL will lose disability and life insurance, profit sharing, and vacation time while paying more for health insurance and taking a loss from the difference in employer matching contributions to a company 401k program, the union officials say.

“It is anticipated that shift for shift earnings will increase slightly if the lease termination goes through, but it would not even come close to covering the gap we will have when losing the above-mentioned benefits. As a result of the benefit losses, we would not be surprised if there is a mass exit of manpower,” the union local wrote in a letter posted to the Surface Transportation Board website on Wednesday.

The union local asked the STB to consider requiring BNSF to continue benefits at MRL levels if the lease termination is approved.

One engineer told the board that some MRL engineers who currently operate remote control locomotives will be bumped to conductor jobs. “Most of these positions are held by workers with 20-35 years of experience at MRL. Some may even be forced to work extra boards or midnight RCL jobs. That is the equivalent of losing 20 years of seniority,” engineer Mike Hodges wrote.

BNSF and MRL have said that BNSF will offer employment to all union and non-union MRL employees in their current jobs with comparable pay, benefits, seniority rights, and other terms of employment.

In October the BLET announced that “an overwhelming majority of participating BLET members ratified an implementing agreement and Oregon Short Line Protective Agreement with BNSF regarding its resumption of service on the Montana Rail Link.”

Note: Story was updated at 9:47 a.m. Central Time on Jan. 6 to correct attribution of engineer quote to Mike Hodges. Due to the way the union letter was filed with regulators, pages appeared out of order and the quote was incorrectly attributed to another engineer.

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