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What media misses about national rail strike by CN train crews and yard workers

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Teamsters Canada Rail Conference strikers at the Alberta legislature last week. Image: David J. Climenhaga

Here in Alberta, what news coverage there has been about the strike for safer working conditions by Canadian National Railway train crews and rail yard workers has focused on the increasingly agitated calls by Conservative politicians for punitive back-to-work legislation.

There is very little reporting on the issues behind the strike by 3,000 conductors, trainpersons and yard workers that began last Tuesday, and none I have seen on why letting the collective bargaining process continue is sound policy or what the political motivations of Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and others making these demands might be.

First of all, it's important to remember that the strikers are principally concerned with work rules by their employer that literally put their lives at risk.

The train workers' union, Teamsters Canada Rail Conference, has emphasized worker safety in this round of bargaining, saying CN now requires members to operate trains alone from outside locomotives, often in rain and freezing temperatures, for distances of up to 27 kilometres. They must hang on to the locomotive with one hand and operate a remote control unit with the other.

"The union's demands to cease these dangerous practices have fallen on deaf ears and the company has refused to come to a satisfactory agreement at the negotiations table to adjust their operating practices in the interest of safety," TCRC said in a statement just before the strike began.

"The company also wants to make it more difficult to take time off and make employees work longer hours, in an attempt to get more work done with fewer people and to reduce staffing levels," the union statement also said. This despite the fact the Transportation Safety Board has reported that since the early 1990s sleep-related fatigue issues have been contributing factors in more than 30 railway incidents. There have been at least nine fatigue-related fatalities among conductors in the past two years. And many conductors work 100 or more hours a week and can be called in on short notice any time.

So keep in mind that Conservatives demanding the train workers immediately return to work with no change in their collective agreement are therefore also demanding that they continue to risk their lives, and the lives of people in the communities through which CN trains run, for our convenience and economic benefit.

Second, anyone involved in labour relations will recognize a common phenomenon -- an employer dragging its heels in bargaining in the reasonable expectation the economic or public impact of the strike will soon fuel calls for one-sided back-to-work legislation.

This is absolutely standard operating procedure with large public sector employers whose services impact the public. We see it in action every time there is a labour dispute at Canada Post.

And, from an unprincipled employer's point of view, why not? They know the public will blame strikers for any inconvenience and ignore the role the employer played by failing to bargain in good faith as required by law. Lazy, overworked and ideologically motivated media are happy to play their role by reinforcing this misleading narrative.

For example, the union has said that since the company can operate reduced numbers of trains with non-striking engineers and management workers, the propane shortage in Quebec is a fabricated crisis. "We wonder if CN is choosing not to ship goods like propane in order to manufacture a crisis and force back-to-work legislation," a union statement said Friday.

If true, that would mean the railway thinks it can avoid concessions by making Canadians feel economic pain from the strike -- and politicians like Kenney are happy to cooperate.

But why should back-to-work measures only damage the workers' cause, as demanded by Alberta's premier and his annoying agriculture minister, Devin Dreeshen, the young man in the MAGA hat?

Obviously, the Trudeau government is on the right track sending a message to this irresponsible employer that it needs to engage in collective bargaining, not a manipulative attack on the economic wellbeing of Canadians up and down the CN line.

If the company continues with this strategy, back-to-work orders should impose proper occupational health and safety measures sought by the employees' union in recognition of what the real problem is here, and who the party responsible for Canadians' economic discomfort really is.

Finally, there is the matter of why Alberta's United Conservatives sound so strident on this issue. Hint: it's not the economy, or even all that much about Alberta's perpetually unhappy farmers.

Rather, it's a terrific distraction from the lousy week the UCP just had while Kenney was on the lam in Texas, going somewhere he is unknown, as he often does when the going gets tough. It is also a great way to continue the federal Conservative post-election-failure strategy of sandbagging Trudeau's Liberals at every opportunity.

Trading barbs with Quebec Premier François Legault over pipelines is part of this strategy. Kenney knows very well that the case for a pipeline from Alberta to Canada's East Coast was always weak.

But it lets him beat up on environmental truth tellers and federal Liberals at the same time, while saving him from admitting that the owners of the refinery and the terminus of Energy East's planned route were never that interested in crude from Alberta's allegedly ethical but expensive bitumen. Here's a link to a story written back in 2016 by the person who more recently set up the UCP's "War Room."

Scrapping with Legault allows Kenney to perpetuate his misleading claims about how Canadian equalization payments work. Ironically, since the current equalization formula was brought in by the Harper government when Kenney was Stephen Harper's chief lieutenant, it's pretty obvious he knows the truth.

As for Legault, he has his own political base to tend, and so is perfectly happy to reciprocate.

When new pipelines from Alberta fail to be built -- it's the market, stupid! -- Kenney will have plenty of scapegoats to blame for the economic failures his government seems determined to make worse by putting all our economic eggs in the bitumen basket.

Well, at least he now implicitly admits pipelines don't actually create many jobs, without them being used to justify the release of more of our ethical greenhouse gases into earth's anti-Alberta atmosphere anyway.

As he huffed at Legault from Texas last week, "we have technology that could guarantee you constant, stable access to propane and other fuels. They're called pipelines."

As we all understand, pipelines operate with almost no employees, so there's far less chance of a labour dispute shutting them down. But we also understand that a new eastbound pipeline would do nothing for Prairie grain farmers, who can't ship grain by pipe. Nor would Quebec's propane requirements justify the multi-billion-dollar cost of building a 4,600-kilometre line to the Atlantic coast.

As for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the best thing he can do is continue to let collective bargaining work.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: David J. Climenhaga

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