CN strike a train wreck

by Steven Macleod

MONTREAL, Que. – Following a tumultuous two-week labour dispute, CN Rail reached a tentative settlement with the United Transportation Union (UTU) bringing 2,800 workers back on the job and easing concerns among a number of industries.

Conductors and yard-service employees represented by UTU went on strike Feb. 10, in a dispute mainly over safety, working conditions and wages.

CN attempted to have the strike declared illegal due to what the railway claimed was insufficient notice and improper authorization from the union’s general chairman.

After completing an assessment of the conductor’s strike, the Canada Industrial Relations Board quashed the railway’s attempt to have the strike deemed illegal.

Striking workers rejected a request to return to work voluntarily by CN with a 60-day cooling-off period before negotiations would resume. Rather, the union insisted it would like to reach a satisfactory agreement it can take to its members.

On day 11 of the strike, the federal government appointed a mediator to try and bring the two sides to an agreement, as Labour Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn told media he wanted the dispute ended in hours, not days.

The UTU replaced its chief negotiator, Rex Beatty, with two UTU Canadian vice-presidents. Beatty was suspended by the union, along with three others, for not seeking assistance from the union’s international president at the beginning of the strike.

John Armstrong and Robert Sharpe headed the UTU negotiating team, and met Feb. 20 in Montreal with railroad negotiators, as well as Blackburn and the government-appointed mediator.

Throughout the dispute, CN continued to offer freight service across its network in Canada with management personnel filling striking workers’ jobs. CN’s other unionized employees also remained on the job in Canada and the US.

Despite continued service, the labour disruption was blamed for reduced production by foresters, chemical and plastic manufacturers, and automakers, which resulted in a plant closure in Ontario. The inability to clear a backlog of container traffic at B.C.’s ports was also hampered by the strike and left a number of grain vessels out at sea.

Chemical production in Canada is a $29 billion business and the country’s third largest exporter, and the strike caused manufacturers to re-route service.

“We have to cut back on production because we are not receiving our raw materials by rail. We have to use trucks to replace trains for the shipping of chemical products,” said Larry Masaro, director of operations for National Silicates. “We expect our incremental shipping costs will exceed $200,000 per week just to start, not to mention lost production costs and the long-term impact on customers.”

Many companies slowed down production, as they had limited means to ship products to their customers. The strike was expected to cause serious hardship to small- and medium-sized companies and their employees, as they reduced output and incurred additional costs related to transportation, noted the Canadian Chemical Producers Association.

“Rail service is essential to the Canadian economy and the strike is beginning to impact our customers and our business,” stated Chris Pappas, COO of NOVA Chemicals, during the strike.

As a result, NOVA Chemicals implemented the contingency plans it developed in preparation for the strike to meet customer demand. The company reduced production at some of its Canadian manufacturing facilities as a precaution.

The Ford Motor Company of Canada shut down its St. Thomas plant in southwestern Ontario, citing a shortage of manufacturing materials due to limited rail service. The closure affected 2,300 people employed at the plant, which makes the Crown Victoria and Grand Marquis model cars. During the first 10 days of the strike, the Port of Vancouver reported an estimated $730 million in cargo was held up on the docks.

“Our customers’ lost sales can’t be made up, as the transportation network is fully booked for months ahead,” said Captain Gordon Houston, president and CEO of the Vancouver Port Authority (VPA).

The Canadian Wheat Board reported it was paying US$300,000 a day to keep ships waiting for grain at anchor off the West Coast, which would eventually end up costing our country’s farmers.

A number of industry associations urged the federal government to intervene and bring the strike to an end. Due to the disruption in a number of industries which rely on rail service, the Labour Minister tabled back-to-work legislation in the House of Commons to bring the strike to an end. But before back-to-work legislation could be enforced, CN and the UTU reached a tentative settlement on Feb. 24. Details of the agreement were not released by the time Truck News went to publication.

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