A rank and file perspective on negotiations and union representation at CN
By Andy @ CN
As the membership of USW Local 2004 whimper over the ratification of Canadian National Railway’s (CN) offer, it has become abundantly clear that our USW leadership has completely missed the mark with negotiations.
First, one has to ask, “Why, amidst CN’s record profits of over $844 million in the last quarter, are we still presented with an offer that required concessions of the USW local 2004 membership?” This is just one of the critical questions that has gone unaddressed by the union leadership.
When coming to work at CN, one is lead to believe that they will be “Living the dream.” In reality, however, it feels more like a nightmare to most. Just like a schoolyard bully, CN thrives on a culture of fear.
The internal systems and training for management promote the regular chastising and badgering of employees. Supervisors, who behave like dictators, are generally rewarded with bonuses and promotions for this behaviour. One only need to take a peek at the backlog of grievances to instantly understand that there is a serious discord between Canadian National Railway and its USW membership.
The company’s status quo has put its employees in dangerous, high-pressure situations, with inadequate resources, limited time, and a continuous demand for higher production levels. Employees are required “do what it takes” even if it means breaking company rules, and even laws, in the process – if they don’t, individuals find themselves the target of a campaign by management to have the employee terminated, or at least punished.
Having set itself up similar to a small nation within Canada’s own borders, CN operates with relative impunity. The general sentiment when issues are brought up through the CN system is “If you don’t like it, sue me?”, with management knowing the membership will face a David and Goliath type battle.
It is my belief, and I expect the belief of most other USW Local 2004 members, that our USW bargaining committee should never entertain the idea of negotiating a new agreement until this bullying regime is addressed.
Disregard of the Grievance Process
As can be expected, when a company like Canadian National Railway feels it does not need to respect its unionized employees, there will likely be a number of resulting grievances. It is unfortunate that CN takes lightly the matters behind the grievances. Rather than addressing the matter, the company chooses to continue to disregard what it doesn’t like within the collective agreement, and waffles by delaying the grievance process. For example, we currently have hundreds of grievances that have exceeded the timelines outlined in our collective agreement.
Company response to injury
Hands down, there is a vicious dichotomy between safety and production expectations within Canadian National Railway.
The company keeps a polished facade of safety training that is designed to offload the liability for injury or accident onto the employee. So rather than having compassion for a fallen employee, those who report injuries are always considered to be at fault.
The interrogation and investigations after an injury are intense and intrusive, with management going so far as demanding to attend the medical exam after an incident with a member. Some at the company have gone so far as to suggest a lesser medication at the medical exam to avoid FRA injuries, the railroad equivalent of a lost time accident
To make matters worse, in 6 years, I have never seen an injury go without some form of discipline. In essence, an injured employee is likely to be criminalized for having the misfortune of getting hurt in a very dangerous environment. This is the context in which thousands of employees work.
As CN has grown, so to has the effort to maintain its infrastructure. Of course, the workforce has not grown fast enough to keep up with this need. To amplify the dilemma, the vast, ageing workforce of the past is set to retire. The proper method of addressing this situation would be to grow the number of permanent workers, with contractors used only on exceptional occasions. However, this is not happening at the company.
Rather than properly funding positions, and advertising the available position, CN is posting very few company jobs, waiting for situations to get dire from section to section, and hiring vast amounts of contractors under the guise of “emergency measures”.
Sometimes CN managers are bold enough to use contractors when their regular members are ready, willing and available to accomplish the same task. Everyday more contractors are used in a “cat and mouse” game of “catch us if you can” this evil regime chooses to play.
Derailing The Results
I have to express my sense of alarm when the chief steward travels the Mountain Region, telling the USW Local 2004 membership stories that will frighten workers into submission. The usual threats include: “If they don’t vote yes to the proposal they will lose”, “The government will legislate you back to work”, or “An arbitrator will rule in the companies favour.”
Please forgive me, but I believe it is the job of our elected USW officials to explain the offer, listen to the issues and concerns of the membership, and fight tooth and nail if we vote it down an unfair offer by the company.
It’s also important to note that the members were told a “No” vote would result in a strike, which swayed the vote considerably. With only 47% of the members casting a vote, and a 55% ratification it is a poor turnout at best. The truth is the membership was scared into something most of them didn’t want, or had already lost faith in.
This is proof that the parts of the executive have lost touch with its members and are more concerned with personal gain then that of the bargaining unit. The results of the ratification vote speak volumes.
It’s time to elect a new committee that will fight for our members, instead of cowering and jamming a poor contract down the line. It’s time to get our local back on track.
The members were given a poor offer that resulted in a divided membership. But the results also speak to the fact that its time for change, and those who have lost their fight need to move on. Rather than sit and ponder, or complain, it’s time to rise up. It’s time to make a change. It’s time to elect a new committee that will fight for our members, instead of cowering and jamming a poor contract down the line. It’s time to get our local back on track.
“Andy” is a 10-year veteran employee at CN and a member of USW Local 2004, which represents over 4,300 engineering department workers at one of North America’s largest railways.