On the morning of Tuesday, Nov. 19, more than 3,000 Canadian National Railway (CN) workers represented by Teamsters Canada Rail Conference (TCRC) went on strike over restrictions to time off, a cap on prescription drug coverage, and dangerous conditions surrounding remote control train operations. The strike follows several months of mediated talks since the workers’ last collective agreement expired in July, and a vote held in September that resulted in an astounding 99.2 per cent in favour of strike action.
Fatigue is one of the biggest issues facing the railroad industry, but CN bosses seem determined not to address these problems. They are attempting to make employees work longer hours while simultaneously putting greater restrictions on taking time off. TCRC members who request further rest time are frequently denied. While there are those who will not go to work because they know it is unsafe, many more accept this treatment out of fear of disciplinary action or worry for their fellow workers.
CN workers are currently required to control trains by operating a remotely controlled locomotive with one hand while they hang onto the outside of the train with the other. Railroaders are expected to do this on their own in rain and freezing temperatures, for up to 27 km at times. These rules, combined with the long hours and refusal to accommodate much-needed rest time, are a recipe for greater levels of injury and sickness among CN workers.
At the negotiating table, CN is intent on forcing the union to accept binding arbitration in an attempt to avoid having to answer to the Teamsters’ concerns over safety. This comes after CN laid off 1,600 management and union staff, supposedly due to declining freight volumes over the last period. Yet while the strike and talks are ongoing, CN is sending management to move trains as far out as Saskatoon. It is becoming quite clear that CN bosses do not care about the safety of their employees, but only about the safety of their profits.
Most of the clients of CN have no alternatives to move their goods, either because of the location of their operations or due to the sheer size of their shipments. CN workers are in an extremely good position to win the demands they have set out for. Without the conductors, train personnel, and yard workers, important freight traffic across the country would grind to a halt, and the bosses know this all too well.
The previous strike at CN by train engineers in 2009 lasted three days, and the Conservative government was already planning to serve them back-to-work legislation. While current Labour Minister Patty Hajdu says she has faith in the collective bargaining process, historically rail strikes were quick to be legislated back, as they are such an enormous part of Canada’s economy. Chemical facilities alone are impacted by $1 million per day and 60 percent of crude-by-rail exports are shipped through these workers. CN transports about $250 billion worth of goods annually across various industries. This is the power of just over 3,000 workers.
In the event that the striking workers are ordered back to work, defying such undemocratic legislation would make it clear who really runs the rail industry and creates the profits the CN bosses are so concerned for. The company would have no leg to stand on when confronted with the shutdown of such a vital industry.
Solidarity with the striking TCRC members!
No acceptance of arbitration, strike to win!
Defy back-to-work legislation!
Put an end to dangerous work practices!