The strike by 95 signal and communications workers at Toronto’s Union Station is reportedly headed to arbitration—after two weeks of strikebreaking by Metrolinx and Toronto Terminals Railway (TTR).
While much is unclear at the moment, the scandalous use of scabs, private security and the courts to break the railway workers’ resolve shows a clear need for working class unity.
Management seeks pay and benefit cuts
The 95 signal and communications workers, unionized with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), began their strike on Apr. 20.
The workers have been without a contract since 2019, but their benefits were frozen at 2013 levels by the employer, TTR, itself jointly owned by Canadian National Railway Co. and Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd.
“For us to go so long without having access to all of the benefits, it takes a toll on your body,” said one worker who spoke to Fightback on condition of anonymity. “If you don’t fix the problem right now, it will evolve into something bigger down the road.”
Management’s most recent five-year offer, however, would have only “increased” their pay by, on average, 2.5 per cent annually and raised their benefits to 2019 levels. In the face of roaring 6.7 per cent inflation, this is a cut.
The offer was rejected by 86 per cent of the membership last fall. Yet, management hardly budged, reportedly offering the same deal again and again.
Indeed, on Apr. 23, IBEW was told that CN Rail’s representatives left not only the bargaining table but the entire city.
Scabs causing train delays, switch issues and worse
Meanwhile, at the start of the strike, Metrolinx said management had a “contingency plan” to redeploy managers and supervisors to do the jobs of striking IBEW members.
Soon after, management tasked untrained staff and hired former employees to work as scabs. Their lack of training caused weeks of switch issues, delays, and cancellations—and the risk of further damage to the signal system.
“We do a lot of manual labour. We are the physical force behind the maintenance and installation of the signals and switches in the field,” the worker said. “It is a lot of repetitive motion, it is a lot of working at heights, it is a lot of confined spaces, it is lifting and operating heavy machinery.” It appears the scabs’ 12-hour shifts, he said, are “ absolutely exhausting them. It will only lead to more mistakes.”
Earlier in the strike, a Metrolinx spokesperson warned this could become a safety hazard.
“If it goes on in a protracted strike that will be more difficult to manage,” the spokesperson said, “It’s very busy. It’s very important that you manage that really carefully—just like air traffic controllers—or you’ll have trains bumping into each other.”
Picket lines mean do not cross
While Metrolinx hired anti-union private security guards from OBN to monitor the union’s members, they took an additional step on May 2: Seeking an injunction against the picketers. While details were scarce, all such injunctions aim to make it easier to cross picket lines.
Shamefully, it appears that some of those crossing IBEW’s picket lines were union members—most-notably members of Unifor.
Doing the work of striking employees allows the boss to cut pay and benefits with impunity. This undermines the rights of workers everywhere.
“It compromises our ability to negotiate for ourselves. If the company can find labour elsewhere, it undermines the rights of all workers,” the anonymous worker said.
The current offer
According to an IBEW statement, the new agreement is a five-year deal, backdated to Jan. 1, 2020. Reportedly, some “work rules” have been agreed to—but wages and benefits will be settled in arbitration.
Neither TTR nor its co-owners have commented on the agreement publicly.
While no one ever wants to go on strike and while we hope these cuts can be fought without needlessly upending the lives of IBEW members further, the track record is not good. As we’ve explained before, overwhelmingly, the binding arbitration system sides with bosses.
The bosses, on the other hand, have a long history of winning cuts in arbitration. In 2012, when CP Rail workers were sent to binding arbitration, the arbitrators sided with the company and imposed a sweeping pension cut that remains to this day. 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.
There is a reason for this. Binding arbitration abrogates the ordinary workers’ power to withdraw their labour and secure agreements on their own terms. They, instead, are subject to gentlemanly, backroom negotiations between well-paid lawyers, where workers have less power.
Fight union busting
Incompetent bosses who refuse to pay workers suitably for their work forfeit their right to keep workplaces running—especially if, as in the case of TTR and Metrolinx, they’re willing to endanger the public in the process. The picket line is where the power of workers lies, not in an arbitration board.
Union Station manages 40 kilometres of track and hundreds of trains moving in and out. None of this can be done without these workers. Organized, they have enormous power. All told, the station also employs members of a number of different unions including the Teamsters, the Amalgamated Transit Union, the United Food and Commercial Workers and LiUNA.
Crossing picket lines, meanwhile, allowed management to keep the station open. This draws out and weakens strikes. It is, moreover, only a matter of time before these other locals head into bargaining themselves and face emboldened employers, demanding comparable cuts.
This shows the clear need for working class unity and, specifically, the need for every union, across the country, to refuse to cross picket lines. The organizations of the labour movement can ensure that no worker is pushed to undermine the struggle of another worker with mass education campaigns and a collective defence against reprisals by management.
No to wage and benefit cuts!
Picket lines mean do not cross!