BNSF Burlington Bugout

by Mike Kroll

Although not quite of the same scale there are clear parallels between Maytag's pending closure here and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad's planned pull out from Burlington, Iowa. Like Maytag, Butler and Gates Rubber here the BNSF has been steadily downsizing their Burlington operation. The BNSF's holiday present to the City of Burlington was a December 3, 2003 announcement that the locomotive repair shop would soon be closed. The people of Burlington were shocked and outraged to see good jobs leave town but unlike Galesburg they just might be able to do something to fight back.

The Burlington and Missouri River Railroad (forefather to todays BNSF) came to Burlington in 1852 and by 1918 there were some 1,600 railroad jobs in that town. Three-quarters of a century later in 1995 the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe railroads merged and there were between 400-500 railroad jobs in Burlington-- nearly all in the massive locomotive repair shop. A part of every merger is the elimination of redundancy and consolidation of operations. Galesburg's BNSF jobs were affected in this way after the merger and so were Burlington's.

You see the combined railroad had too much capacity for locomotive repair. Before the merger the BN operated locomotive repair shops in Aurora, Minneapolis and Livingston Mont. Meanwhile the Santa Fe had a similar shop in Topeka. Both the Minneapolis and Livingston shops were closed and their work moved to Burlington prior to the BNSF merger. In 2002 the merged railroad reduced the workforces at both of the remaining shops and announced that it would study consolidating the two shops. Topeka lost 86 of 414 jobs while employment at the Burlington shop dropped from 429 to 379. The general consensus of most in Burlington was that the shop there was bigger, more modern and capable and more productive; therefore the hope was that in the battle between Topeka and Burlington the Iowa town had an edge.

Real doubts began to emerge in Burlington in January 2003. That new year was greeted by the announcement by the BNSF of job cuts at both Topeka and Burlington, but while the former lost 64 jobs the later saw 258 workers laid off. Ironically, when the BNSF made the announcement they insisted that the job cuts were unrelated to any potential consolidation of the two locomotive repair shops. Because of the magnitude of the cuts federal law required the BNSF to give the Burlington workers 60 day notice and they were paid through March 15th while the Topeka workers were lucky to be paid for the week following the announcement.

All laid off BNSF employees were given the option of bidding on other positions within the company. Of course the furloughed employees options were governed by both seniority with the company and the ability to pass any requirements of the new job, including aptitude tests. A BNSF memo to employees encouraged them to bid on any of "hundreds of available jobs" within the railroad, providing they were willing to transfer. BNSF spokesperson Steve Forsberg said at that time, "If a person is willing to move to where the job is and willing to change crafts plenty of opportunities are there."

As tragic as these job losses were to individual employees the effect was even greater to the Burlington community that saw over $10 million in annual payroll disappear. Another parallel to Galesburg. When the writing was on the wall Burlington city officials as well as Iowa state officials and politicians met with BNSF representatives in an ultimately futile effort to keep the Burlington shop open. Like Maytag, BNSF officials strung Burlington along promising not to reach any ultimate decision about the shop with discussing the long-anticipated consolidation report. The then-mayor of Burlington, Tom Scott, was quoted in the Burlington Hawkeye as saying: "[BNSF executive] Craig Hill told us to our faces that we would have an opportunity to see the study," Scott said Wednesday afternoon. "He looked us in the eye and lied to us ... not just the city, but all those federal and state officials that came to our aid and then treated them like nobodies."

Burlington city officials tried the conventionally accepted tactic of bribing a business to stay without success. Galesburg and many other communities have long since learned that even when such bribes, er "incentives," are accepted their real impact can't be expected to last much longer than the flavor in a stick of chewing gum. Locally Maytag took millions of dollars of "incentives" and still bugged out. But Burlington has one more card to play, if local officials have the nerve.

Way back in 1858 the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad signed an agreement with the City of Burlington granting the railroad required right-of-way and land necessary for the construction of "freight and passenger depots, machine shops, work shops, repair shops, and other necessary fixtures ...upon such ground within said city" and that "the principal shops for the construction and repair of machinery, running stock, etc., always being maintained [within Burlington]." This 146 year-old agreement just might provide the mechanism for Burlington to force the BNSF into keeping the locomotive shop open. However, the BNSF has already told Burlington's mayor Mike Edwards that while the decision is irreversible they would like to work with the city to help find a new use for the facility.

In late January the Burlington City Council held a closed-door meeting with City Attorney Scott Power to discuss potential litigation with the BNSF. Following that meeting no public action was taken and members of the council refused to comment on what transpired or what actions the city might or might not take. The unions representing BNSF workers in Burlington have offered to assist the city should it undertake court action against the railroad.

Power did not return my telephone call but has been quoted in the Burlington Hawkeye as saying that the content of the1858 document has been twice upheld by the Iowa Supreme Court and "[m]y opinion is that it's an enforceable agreement. I just don't see where time diminishes the agreement. To me it's a breech of contract case. They made a deal and they broke it."

BNSF officials claim to be unconcerned about the agreement. First, they point out that the Burlington shop isn't closed (yet) and second, that while their own legal department is unwilling to discuss the matter publicly they are aware of the document and it was taken under consideration as decisions were made.

As of Tuesday Burlington's City Manager Bruce Slagle told me that no further meetings have been scheduled by the city council to discuss the matter but declined to comment on where the issue now stands. The open meetings act requires that the Burlington City Council take any action in a public meeting and to-date no such discussion has occurred. Slagle confirmed that at this time his understanding is that the BNSF will eventually close the Burlington locomotive shop and leave town but there currently remain about 44 shop employees. He also pointed out that the BNSF maintains a yard in town as well and to his knowledge none of those jobs are affected by actions at the locomotive shop.