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The CN strike explained

Now well into its second week, and ruled legal by the Canada Industrial Relations Board, the strike paralysing Canadian National deserves some explanation.

First off, Canadian National has the best operating ratio of any Class 1 railway in North America. The operating ratio is the amount spent against the amount earned. In the case of CN, it is around 60 cents spent for every dollar earned. But, while it is a factor, this strike is not about money.

The most important factor is working conditions. The current working conditions are not particularly bad, but CN wants to change them to set railway working standards back a century: CN expects its train crews to work 12 hours on, 8 hours off every day, around the clock, around the calendar, and CN wants to take away an employee's right to go home at least every second shift, as they now do.

Typically, a train crew will be ordered at, for example, Toronto. They will run their train to Sarnia, be put up for a few hours in a hotel, and returned to Toronto on a train going the other way. If they don't make it in one direction in 12 hours, they are sent the rest of the way by taxi. Then they can go home until the next time they're needed. Under the rules CN wants to put in place, the crew would get to Sarnia, and then be ordered to run to London, back to Sarnia, across to Niagara Falls, back to Sarnia, and, if they are lucky, back to Toronto where, depending on how long it took them to get back, they might actually be able to get home and see their family who has now not seen them for a week.

The resulting pay increase for conductors would be on the order of about 40%, because it would be about 40% more hours than they work now. But virtually no employees think the increased hours and money is worth sacrificing their families. A large proportion of conductors are already divorced from the demands put on by this line of work, and those that still have their families don't want to lose them.

But if you think a 12 hour work day and 8 hours off isn't harsh enough, CN wants to take away the bulk of a crew's lunch break. While this particular change mostly affects yard crews - the crews that shunt trains in freight yards, rather than between cities, the latter of which have a microwave and a fridge on their train and can eat on the go - it is still an insult to all conductors. CN would like to reduce the crew's lunch break to 20 minutes.

For anyone who works in an office, a 20 minute lunch break is already very short. When your 20 minute lunch break also includes the time to stop your train, park it, walk over to a building where you can heat your lunch, sit down, eat, digest, return to your train, and get it going again, you can start to see the problem. 20 minutes is unrealistic.

Aside from being downright inhumane, operating train crews at the legal maximum work hours is completely unsafe. A railway conductor, contrary to the popular view that he just sits on his engine and has a nice trip, does backbreaking work, sometimes having to carry an 80 pound knuckle - the bit that connects train cars together - back two miles to the other end of the train, possibly in a snow, ice, or rain storm and/or in +40C or -40C weather, and then has to install it and walk back. Most trains have to stop along their trip and work, that is, set off train cars at businesses and pick up others, involving plenty of hard labour. The job is no picnic, and is tiring at the best of times. Demanding that the crews work to their very limits is asking for disaster.

The conductors are also demanding a 4.5% pay raise for two years, and a 4% pay raise on the third of a contract. This may seem high to many of us, but it is in line with many of the pay raises already given to other CN employees during their contract negotiations over the past few years.

With the strike itself explained, there's another whole dynamic to it that has not been widely covered.

The union responsible for this strike is the UTU - the United Transportation Union's Canadian chapter. There is a dispute between UTU International and its Canadian chapter. UTU International says the strike is not legal by its constitution and has fired its Canadian executives. The Canadian chapter says it is legal by the Canadian UTU constitution, but UTU international holds the purse strings, and that means: CN conductors are not getting strike pay. This dispute can trace back to an alleged friendship between the head of UTU International and the head of Canadian National, an American by the name of E. Hunter Harrison.

Yes, the working conditions CN wants to impose are so harsh that CN's conductors have walked off the job without even collecting strike pay. It is a matter of principal for the conductors and they will stay off the job as long as it takes to get CN to back down from its completely unrealistic demands.

The effects of this strike are far reaching. Businesses across the country are having to slow down or stop work because their products are not moving. Manufacturers are not able to get the supplies they need to manufacture their products. Many are shipping by truck at far greater expense due to the absence of rail. But the danger is the manufacturing sector of the economy completely grinding to a halt. CN's smaller national rival, Canadian Pacific, is not able to help in a lot of situations as the rail networks were built to provide local monopolies to each company. The result is that CP simply cannot get to most of CN's customers to help out. CP does not even operate east of Montreal in Canada.

The way CN is coping with this strike is to put all sorts of managers on the trains, many of whom have no idea how to do these jobs. In the first week, there were several derailments and accidents, far above the norm, across the country. Ironic as the strike started the same day CTV's W5 aired a story about CN's already high number of derailments. The number of trains running is severely reduced, and the way they are operating is changing. CN's freight yards are getting clogged, and the network is slowly crumpling. Even if the strike ends today, it will be a while before things are back to normal. GO trains are operating as normal but the CN crews operating them are donating a huge portion of their pay for doing so to charity as their contribution. The union has reserved the right to cancel almost all GO service with 72 hours notice, but the fact that they have not done so is a sign that the unionised labourers at CN have a strong conscience.

All we can do is hope that CN, which had gambled on the CIRB ruling this strike illegal, comes to the bargaining table and offers realistic working conditions to its employees. It is time for this strike to end before the cause of rail transportation itself is hurt beyond repair. CN is not only threatening to set working conditions back to those of the 19th century, but is threatening to put more trucks on the road at a time when it is imperative that we get them off.

Meanwhile, if you see a CN picket line, go give them your support. Canada prides itself on being a progressive country, let's show that we mean it.

Posted at 09:43 on February 20, 2007

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robbie bowman writes at Tue Feb 20 21:18:07 2007...

this strike is bullshit and hunter harrison is an ass hole. cn should be a shamed of them selves for derailing all trains and not giving a shit a about fixing the railroad across canada


Nathan writes at Wed Feb 21 14:47:07 2007...

Well if they go back to the CN expects its train crews to work 12 hours on, 8 hours off every day, around the clock, around the calendar, and CN wants to take away an employee's right to go home at least every second shift, as they now do. That's what lead to Canada's worst train disaster of Feb 8, 1986!! When a CN frieght train ran a red light in Hinton, AB and hit a VIA head on and killed 26 people and injuried thousands. The engineer had a list of health problems and fatigue that lead to the accident.

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