Greed comes first: CP Rail strikers ordered back to work

Teamsters rally on Parliament Hill earlier this week. (Photo: Karl Nerenberg)

Hey, it's all about the economy, right? Well, maybe not so much.

Earlier this week Conservative Labour Minister Lisa Raitt introduced bill C-39 - back to work legislation targeting striking Canadian Pacific Railroad engineers and conductors (TCRC).

It's the sixth time in five years that the federal government has issued back to work legislation that effectively defeats the bargaining position of unionized employees. In this particular instance, the Teamsters' union is being told that they can't strike because not moving freight in and out of the country is negatively impacting Canada's economic recovery.

Keeping corporate profits going: An essential service? 

So, in a nutshell, the federal government has decided, after only a week of striking, that rail engineers and conductors perform an essential service, much like nurses, doctors, firefighters and paramedics, and can be denied their right to strike. Of course rail engineers and conductors don't save lives on a routine basis - they move people and valuable freight that helps keep corporate profit margins on the rise.

In essence, Minister Raitt is telling us that keeping the wheels of corporate profit greased is now deemed an essential service. CP reported record profits in the first quarter of 2012. The rail business is a big moneymaker.

According to striking locomotive engineer John Cochen, CP is crying poor. "They want to cut pension benefits for employees," Cochen says.

"Not only that, they want to cut the benefits of retirees, people who've worked and paid into the plan and are now retired and using pension benefits that were negotiated while they stilled worked for CP," Cochen adds. A retired locomotive engineer could lose up to $13,000 per year in benefits. "CP wants to take money we've earned and put it into the pockets of its shareholders. "CP representatives have yet to respond to a request for an interview." 

When asked about service interruptions caused by the labour action, Cochen said that keeping passenger service going is TCRC's idea. "CP was against keeping passenger trains going. They wanted to make us look bad and turn public opinion against us, but the government convinced CP to keep moving people during the strike." With a grin he added, "of course both the government and CP were falling all over each other, trying to take the credit for keeping people moving."

Back to work legislation threatens whole collective bargaining system

Locomotive engineers and conductors aren't the only ones who need to negotiate a collective agreement with Canadian Pacific Railroad. The Teamsters' Rail Maintenance Workers division is poised to enter into its negotiations with the rail company this July.

Teamster President Bill Brehl is carefully monitoring the outcome of the strike. "Our local (TCRCMWED) will probably be facing the same problems as the TCRC, but will be fine tuning our strategies based on what happens here." Brehl has serious concerns about C-39, which passed the Senate on.

"'Back to Work' legislation thwarts the whole collective bargaining system. It will always favour the employer because by its nature it removes the union's right to withhold their services...the only tool we have once talks break down. If an employer understands that 'btw' is forthcoming, they can sit back and let the government disarm the union. This kind of legislation may end a strike but it does not ensure labour peace and, in fact, usually increases the unrest that is already present."

All of this comes on the heels of criticism that the government's budget bill, C-38, represents an attack on working people. Minister Raitt recently announced changes to the Employment Insurance Act that would further restrict EI claims by changing eligibility guidelines. The new EI legislation is being labeled punitive, unfairly targeting the unemployed and underemployed.

Bill C-38 attacks on working people and the environment

Other changes to labour legislation include the repealing of the Fair Wages and Hours Act, a move that Raitt say will cut "unnecessary red tape." What it actually ensures is that contractors bidding for federal projects will no longer be required to pay "fair wages" or overtime to their employees. This will largely affect skilled and semi-skilled trades and construction workers. Additionally, employers of migrant workers will be permitted to pay their workers less than the current minimum, a move that many say will lower wages across the board.

For Bill Brehl, it's all about greed:

"For sure it will lower the bar for everyone. Its called a 'minimum' wage for a reason. It is a standard (and not a very high one, in my opinion) and it's a standard for everyone. It means that the law will not allow the employer to pay anyone below the standard. If they could, almost all employers would pay lower wages to their employees. The unions (as well as the fear of unions coming) and the minimum wage are all that prevents this. There must always be an hourly wage that they cannot sink below, no matter how far down their ethics and human decency have dipped. Once an employer is allowed to reduce the wage of one set of employees, they will keep trying to bring the others down, as well. Greed is an insatiable animal."

Lest you think that C-38 is primarily throwing working people under the bus, it also dismantles much of Canada's environmental protection legislation. "This government is taking environmental protection back 100 years," says Council of Canadians' Maude Barlow, "all so that the corporate for-profit sector can more easily exploit our precious resources."

The Green Party of Canada is also deeply concerned about how environmental protection is being undermined "to clear the way for resource extraction." It would appear that C-38 sacrifices the environment to corporate greed, apparently all in the name of "ensuring Canada's economic recovery." Among the legislations to be changed or eliminated to accommodate the corporate sector are the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, the Fisheries Act, and the Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act.

The Harper majority would have us believe a false dichotomy - a healthy economy is at odds with rights, freedoms and the environment. Labour Minister Lisa Raitt has made it clear that workers' rights and wages are to be sacrificed for the sake of a "healthy and stable economy".

Last time I checked, lowering wages has the opposite effect - it negatively impacts a country's economy. We only have to look south of our border with the U.S. to confirm that.


Meg Borthwick is a freelance writer and moderates's discussion forum, babble.

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