For the past week, members of Teamsters Canada Rail Conference (TCRC) have been on strike over the issues of fatigue, dangerous work conditions, and a proposed cap on prescription drug coverage. In the morning on Nov. 26, the union reached a tentative agreement to renew their collective agreement with the Canadian National Railway Co. (CN). The new tentative agreement will have to first be ratified by Teamsters members; the details of which will not be released until they have had the chance to review the document.
The CN strike affected over 3,000 conductors, train personnel, and yard workers and stretched across the country, with dozens of pickets set up throughout most of the major cities and many small rail towns along the tracks. The workers faced subzero temperatures, snow, and rain, as well as an incident where a Saskatoon picketer was injured by a truck while holding the line, receiving minor injuries. The CN workers showed an admirable spirit of solidarity and sacrifice throughout the strike.
While the Teamsters’ union steadfastly maintained that their concerns were over fatigue and workplace health and safety, CN rejected their statements and claimed the strike revolved around worker compensation. The dismissal of the real danger posed by fatigue from the company is nothing new; railroaders regularly experience significant delays in their shifts due to the unpredictable nature of train traffic and rail conditions, not only in start times but just as frequently when they are already on the job.
Speaking with CN workers on the pickets has revealed a work environment rife with intimidation and disregard for their safety and wellbeing. Workers are constantly on-call, and while they are expected to be well rested for their shifts they often aren’t given enough time to do so, and can face harassment from managers if they turn down shifts. The company usually denies their workers’ requests for further rest time, and when concerns are raised over fatigue they can even face disciplinary action.
An illuminating recording was released on Nov. 25 by TCRC, in which a non-unionized CN supervisor chief rail traffic controller — ignored the concerns of an experienced conductor that he and the locomotive engineer were too fatigued to operate a train, and ordered them to continue. The workers had already notified CN of their inability and need for relief from another crew, and while the conductor ultimately did not move the train he was suspended for 14 days without pay due to this incident. CN would have made their fatigued crew continue working for several hours, operating the locomotive uphill through residential areas east of Toronto. This took place in Oct., 2018.
Over the last 24 months, nine Teamsters Canada members have been killed in railway accidents, three of whom were from the group who were on strike at CN. While workers continuously called for a safe workplace, CN spent most of the talks refusing to budge on the union’s key issues and concerns.
One of the biggest points affected by the strike was the transportation of propane, which prompted worries over shortages throughout the country. A statement from TCRC President Lyndon Isaak indicated there was belief that CN was purposefully throttling the supply in order to prolong the labour dispute and turn the public against striking workers. With the fact that trains were still being moved by management throughout the strike, if to a lesser extent, it is plain to see that what those trains were transporting was a decision made solely by the company. Intermodal traffic (consumer goods) is where most of the profit for CN comes from, and that they did not prioritize propane or grain transport during the strike was all in the name of business and revenue despite their claims of “doing the best they can.”
While CN cuts jobs in response to a depressed demand for railroad transport, last year they themselves said they raked in the highest quarterly revenues of their 99-year history, earning a net income of $1.13 billion as of Sept. 30, 2018. It is shameful that they speak of falling on hard times, when it is the workers who are really suffering from their disregard of the union’s health and safety concerns.
CN workers should be able to have adequate rest for their job without the fear of discipline or harassment. They should not be forced to work longer hours to make up for layoffs. They should not have to accept a cap on their prescription drug coverage in an already difficult workplace.