CN Rail worker outside the company’s headquarters in Montreal
THE CN STRIKE WAS DEJA VIEW ALL OVER AGAIN. The employer worked hard to make the workers the badest of bad guys, as usual—and the media bought it, as usual. Facts never entered into it.
The national media reported a shortage of propane in Quebec as a crisis. Thousands of Quebeckers would suffer they said. All because strikers had no thought for anyone but themselves. None of it was true.
In truth, CN had manufactured the “crisis.” The company had enough trains and crews still on the job to get propane to Quebec. It made a deliberate decision not to do that. Then they could finger the workers for making problems in Quebec.
The Teamsters union caught them at it. A union statement pointed out: “Despite the strike ... over 1,800 locomotive engineers and over 600 supervisors are free to continue to operate freight trains every day. The fact that these trains are not transporting propane is a business decision by CN.”
Once the scam became public, a train-load of propane was swiftly dispatched from Edmonton to Quebec. The supposed crisis was over.
Employers never asked to consider ‘the greater good’
The strike only lasted eight days. But, the media drumbeat from hour one was that the nation was in great peril without the trains running; and that the workers should put personal concerns aside for “the greater good”. The fact the so-called personal concerns included individual and public safety was buried or forgotten.
“It’s like Lac Magantic never happened,” said Luc Fort, an Ontario railroader with 30 years on the job. “Like a train full of oil didn’t explode and burn down a town in Quebec. Running trains too far, for too long, with over-tired crews is only inviting another disaster.”
Appeals to the greater good never have any time for the way life on the job really is.
Life on the job for railway workers is rough and perilous. The Teamsters explain: “Our members operate trains alone from the outside of a rail car, holding on to a moving train with one hand and controlling it with the other.
“Railroaders are expected to do this in rain and in freezing temperatures, sometimes for distances of up to 17 miles.”
Company indifference makes it even worse.
The Teamsters illustrated how little CN cares about worker or public safety with documentation of a case in which a train conductor was suspended for 14 days because he wanted to avoid a disaster. He refused to follow an order to take a train through a busy residential area.
The conductor refused because he and his engineer had worked more than 10 hours without a break. The conductor believed they were just too tired to do the job safely.
It’s day to day working conditions like these that have killed nine railway workers in the past two years.
“This is why we are on strike against CN,” explained François Laporte, president of Teamsters Canada. “This happens every day across the rail industry, and CN regularly intimidates workers who raise the issue of fatigue with the threat of discipline.”
At the breaking point
These gruelling conditions are compounded by ever longer work shifts. CN Rail management is trying to get fewer workers to do more work. Just days before the strike, the company announced 1,600 job cuts across its operations.
Many workers are at the breaking point. Workers usually get just two hours of notice prior to a shift, and a round trip can last up to 42 hours. Workers typically perform three of these round trips per week.
“We want more ability to take rest, more ownership over our own rest,” stated Matt Wade, a CN worker. “Not just for safety — because that is very important — but because we also want to improve our quality of life.”
The Teamsters reached an agreement with CN to end the strike on November 26. Details will not be released until union members have had a chance to review and vote on the deal—a process that will take months.
For now, the trains are running and worries about the greater good are calmed—at least until the next group of working folks dares to reach out for a little more control over how they work and live.
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