The legacy of back-to-work legislation in Canada
By Andrew Stevens
Amidst national transportation safety concerns and the inability of Canada’s leading rail companies to handle a record grain harvest, the 3,300 conductors, train persons, traffic coordinators, and yard persons at CN, represented by the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference, are voting on a new contract. Elections are taking place between March 3 and March 20. Around Christmas, the membership rejected the first agreement 61% to 39%. Less than 45% of the members actually returned their ballot.
Workers gave their union a clear job action mandate after rejecting the first agreement and the Teamsters leadership issued a strike notice that was set to commence February 8, 2014 . Almost immediately, federal Labour Minister, Kellie Leitch promised back to work legislation should a work stoppage commence. Despite a message from the union that overwork at the company was a safety risk and disaster in the waiting, Leitch repeated the Conservative mantra that the government is “focused on the economy” above all else. The company and the union bargaining teams reached a second agreement shortly after Leitch issued her threat.
CN, one of North America’s largest rail companies, had $10.57 billion in revenue in 2013, up from $9.92 billion in 2012. Profits in the fourth quarter of 2013 alone totaled $635 million. The company expects double-digit growth in 2014.
Peter, a veteran conductor with CN, writes about what’s at stake for workers in this second ratification vote and how the union leadership has capitulated to company demands in the shadow of federal back to work legislation. An an earlier two-part interview with Peter can be found here.
Dear Teamsters Brothers & Sisters!
Attached are a couple of pieces of information regarding the upcoming contract ratification for the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference (CTY Division). (See links below) Contract ratification is once again underway at CN. Workers represented by the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference are being asked for second time to accept a contract that was already rejected by a 61% to 39% margin just prior to Christmas. These figures are significant.
In its letter to members, the union leadership is using the threat of government intervention and back to work legislation as a tool to coerce workers to again vote in favour of this terrible contract.
The Government’s actions do not, unfortunately, leave us with many viable options. It is evident that we will not be allowed to strike and an agreement will be imposed. It is in these circumstances that we came to this second agreement. Letter from the TCRC leadership, February 14, 2014
What makes this contract so serious is the language revolving around the issues of rest in our working environment. This means safety and performance. Regular runs of 12 hours are now becoming 16, 18, or 20 hours on the job. As well, the ability to only book 14 hours of rest before being scheduled again to work is simply not acceptable. This is tantamount to an end run that forces an hourly wage upon the membership. This too was soundly rejected a number of times in past and led to strikes under the leadership of E. Hunter Harrison, who now heads a rival company, CPR.
The western Canadian rest issue was partially addressed through the Ministry of Labour and FMCS agreeing to assist in working to stop these violations. Letter from the TCRC leadership, February 14, 2014
As the leadership’s appeal indicates, the real issues regarding rest violations and the ability of junior members to take any extended rest are at best “partially addressed”. There is a vast difference in arriving at a solution to this critical safety issue and the notion of “agreeing to assist in working to stop these violations”. The latter is not a remedy, nor can it any form be construed as arriving at a remedy to this problem.
Once again we’re back to the scare tactics of having a settlement imposed upon us by the government or through binding arbitration. At no time are other options, or solutions, being considered by the union leadership. There are other forms of job action beyond a strike and just maybe this is such an important contract that some form of civil disobedience should be considered. I believe the membership’s initial strong vote to reject the contract points to these possibilities.
In addition to the threat of back to work legislation, leadership continues to intimidate the rank and file with the threat that their back pay will not likely be available to them, as per the company’s offer.
Let’s be clear that recent contracts have failed to make any substantial changes, never mind improvements, to working conditions at CN. This is particularly true with the current tentative agreement. Low voter turnout during the last ratification vote, when the contract was initially rejected, substantiates my point. This speaks to the union leadership’s inability to motivate and galvanize solidarity amongst the membership.
Unfortunately the Teamsters executive has learned nothing from the first vote. It has also become abundantly clear that the current crisis is being used by the leadership to impose their will upon the members. They have also forgotten that it is the membership that affords them the wages and lifestyles to which they have become accustomed. The leadership is simply trying to protect and maintain their dynasty, rather than doing their jobs and confronting the company on behalf of workers.
Just as the Teamsters are pressing workers to support the contract, CNR has broadcasted the same ten-point message to every employee computer (CN Communication #1, CN Communications #2, CN Communications #3). The scare tactics are similar to those presented in the union letter, and both are working together to cajole workers to vote for this flawed agreement. Simply put we have another propaganda campaign by CNR in play. The even greater problem and issue I see is that there’s no objection whatsoever by the union leadership to this type of intimidation and selling of the contract to the rank and file.
I won’t be intimidated or coerced into voting for this contract. Nor do I believe the majority of the union members will be either, and the contract will be rejected with even stronger numbers a second time around. Opposition within the ranks is mounting across the company. Two small locals in Ontario, Capreol and Horne Payne, have started a campaign urging the membership to reject the contract. As a tactic, which I’ve seen first hand, they are posting “VOTE NO” decals inside the engines. That speaks volumes about the mood of the rank and file membership on the ground with the tools. Whether the union leadership will heed the message remains to be seen, but the rumour mill is already rife with talk about several of these union leaders being recalled from their offices and positions of authority, and appropriately so.
There’s a lot at stake in this ratification vote and the membership needs to make their voice heard. Vote NO and send a message to CN and the Teamsters leadership!