Source: Pete Markham/Flickr

Three thousand locked-out Canadian Pacific Railway workers, unionized with the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference, are headed to binding arbitration under federal government pressure.

However, CP Rail’s own recent history shows that arbitration is unlikely to solve the workers’ problems.

Pay cuts, overwork and more cuts

On March 20, 3,000 CP Rail workers were locked out. While management blamed the workers’ “onerous” demands for forcing the company’s hand, CP Rail has been actively undermining its workers’ pay and benefits for at least a decade.

In 2012, after management’s demand for a 40 per cent pension cut drove CP Rail workers to strike, the company was supported by back-to-work legislation from the Harper Conservatives. In arbitration subsequently, the company secured an ongoing $2,200 cap on pension payments—amounting to an 18 per cent pension cut. Since 2012, the company has further cut thousands of jobs while increasing the length and speed of its train routes, forcing the workers to do more for less.

For CP Rail’s owners, the cuts have meant larger dividends and the right to pocket $35 million every year in pension fund savings (called a “contribution holiday”). For CP Rail’s staff, the cuts have meant eroding benefits and dangerous overwork. As one union spokesperson noted, this means “50, 60, 70 hours – a couple of days – away from home,” leading “to injuries, to exhaustion, to death, to a lot of issues, a lot of mental and physical issues.” 

Yet during this round of negotiations, the company demanded deeper cuts. The company’s two-year offer would “increase” wages by 2.5 per cent and then two per cent and keep the pension cap unchanged—despite 5.7 per cent inflation. When the workers voted 97 per cent in favour of strike action, management further responded with a lockout notice.

Big business, right-wing mouth-breathers call for anti-strike legislation

On the first day of the shutdown, as pickets went up, the same management that issued the lockout notice blamed the union for, supposedly, withdrawing service a few hours before the lockout deadline. 

Yet the same release blaming the union for the shutdown linked to a company-run, anti-union website which stridently defends the existing pension caps. Management was clear that, even if a few hours remained before the deadline, it had no intention of moving on any key issues.

Still, business groups and right-wing politicians were quick to call for state intervention.

Warning of dire economic “fallout,” the Chamber of Commerce called for the Trudeau government to legislate the CP Rail workers back to work.  

The right-wing premiers of Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Alberta and federal Conservative Party Leader Candice Bergen, predictably, co-signed the demand for back-to-work legislation. Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe further insisted that the railway workers should have their right to strike taken away by declaring them an “essential service.”

Just weeks ago, these same right-wingers were celebrating the anti-vaccine “Freedom Convoy” in Ottawa—before the demonstration escalated to border blockades and talk of “civil war.” Yet, when it came to unionized workers, these same “freedom” advocates came out firmly against the freedom to not show up at work. 

When asked by the Conservatives if the government would impose back-to-work legislation, Liberal Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan told the House of Commons: “Every day that goes by, for farmers and manufacturers in this country particularly, is an hour or a day too long.” 

Arbitration will not solve the problem

Facing the likely event of back-to-work legislation, the union agreed to return to work and accept binding arbitration. The union’s March 22 bulletin read:

“In consideration of the hard positions of the parties at bargaining and the near certainty that our
dispute would eventually end in a final and binding arbitration as ordered by the government. For this reason, our bargaining committee made the decision it would be in all of our best interests to take control of the situation and work out an agreement that gives us power over the terms, conditions and eventual arbitrator.”

Binding arbitration, however, abrogates the right of ordinary workers to withdraw their labour and secure agreements on their own terms. Instead, their pay and working conditions are subject to a series of backroom negotiations which often drag on for years, largely outside of democratic control.

The arbitration process, furthermore, has a long history of siding with bosses against workers. In 2012, when CP Rail workers were sent to binding arbitration, the arbitrators sided with the company and imposed the same regressive pension caps that the union is now fighting. Across Canada, arbitrators have also backed pension cuts for Air Canada workers, tiered pensions for postal workers, and wage freezes for Ontario’s long-term care workers, Alberta’s nurses, and Manitoba’s entire public sector. This is by no means a worker-friendly system.

The need to fight back-to-work legislation

Back-to-work legislation is, in some respects, a misnomer—the Conservatives and the Chamber of Commerce demanded that CP Rail’s workers be coerced into working under increasingly dangerous and grueling conditions. Time and time again, the legislation has been overturned by courts, albeit years later, for violating workers’ basic freedom of assembly. 

Since its first use in 1950, the legislation has been used about 145 times across Canada. Every time it is imposed successfully, it emboldens bosses who know the state will intervene anytime a union gains the upper hand. Secured by state force, there’s little reason why a company would negotiate.

CP Rail is undoubtedly aware of this. On the first day of the shutdown, management reassured the company’s shareholders that it would look to have the union penalized for refusing to accept the new cuts, promising: “The company will be reviewing avenues to have this egregious behavior properly addressed.”

So long as employers can count on the government to stop the withdrawal of labour, effectively at will, the right to strike has no functional meaning.

Yet, after just two days away from work, CP Rail’s workers brought the country’s grain, manufacturing, and petroleum industries to a virtual halt. This is an indication of the enormous power that could be mobilized to defend the rights of workers everywhere. The task falls to Canada’s labour movement to make the threat of back-to-work legislation untenable, with an organized plan of defiance.

Support the CP Rail workers!

No to binding arbitration!

Defy back-to-work legislation!