Lac-Mégantic is a reminder of why society needs a strong labour movement

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Photo: wikipedia commons

It has been over three weeks since a train derailment and ensuing explosion left about 50 people either dead or missing in Lac-Mégantic.

Although the exact cause for this disaster remains unknown, it is clear that a large part of the blame lies with the fact that only a sole crew member was working aboard the train that night. In this respect, Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway's practice of employing a single-person crew, driven by cost-cutting demands, is only the latest example of the disastrous policies that follow when market forces are allowed to dictate corporate decision-making.

However, at the same time, it also represents a major failure on the part of the railway unions. Not only were they unable to convince regulators that single-person crews are unsafe and should be banned, but they were also unable to prevent their implementation at the bargaining table. Yet, in demonstrating the weakened position of unions as advocates and bargaining agents, the Lac-Mégantic disaster reveals the important role that organized labour plays in mediating between the demands of the market and the broader public good.

Single-person crews appeared in the mid-2000s, following the introduction of new technology that allows a sole operator to control an entire train. Although most major U.S. railways maintained a minimum of two operators, short-line and non-unionized railways, including the MM&A, welcomed the single-operator system as an effective means for alleviating cost-pressures. However, employees complained about the stress placed on solo-operators, leaving them fatigued after long hours and vulnerable in case of emergencies.

In 2009, two of North America's oldest and largest railway unions, the United Transportation Union and Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, lobbied the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration to ban single-operator crews.

Despite these efforts, they were unsuccessful in convincing regulators to prohibit the practice. Perhaps more importantly, the railway unions were also unable to prevent the introduction of single-person crews through collective bargaining. In this regard, their failure is symptomatic of the steady decline in influence of organized labour in recent decades.

Railway unions, once amongst the largest and most powerful in North America, have wilted under progressive deregulation and pressure from railway companies seeking to cut costs. Arguably even more damaging has been the increasing ambivalence of the public as to the role played by organized labour more generally. At worst, unions are viewed as self-serving, corrupt and out-of-touch with the needs of industry and the demands of a modern economy. More typically, they are thought of as relics from the struggles of a bygone age, institutions whose social utility largely expired with the rise of our post-industrial "information economy."

The attitudes of legislators and regulators, influenced by the ethos of corporate management, often reflect prevailing biases against unions in their deference to market-oriented initiatives and solutions. Nevertheless, for a labour movement that is increasingly an afterthought or under assault, the failure to prevent the spread of single-person crews contains a silver lining.

Although unions can hardly be thought of as impartial organizations, the Lac-Mégantic disaster has demonstrated that the interests of their members can, and often do, align with those of society at large. It is true that in certain circumstances unions can stymie economic growth and reduce corporate competitiveness. Yet, as we have seen in recent years, corporations driven entirely by market demands for greater efficiencies, productivity and "the bottom line" do not necessarily produce "better" policies. Rather, in certain instances, of which Lac-Mégantic is only one of many, such policies have yielded catastrophic results.

In this respect, organized labour serves a similar function to regulation, in that it represents a check on the ability of corporations to manage in response to market forces. Collective bargaining and union action, not only laws and regulations, can function as bulwarks against corporate practices that not only endanger employees, but entire communities as well.

Furthermore, unions are often better situated to predict and fight against potentially hazardous novel labour practices, as opposed to regulators, which are typically reactive by nature. Thus, the defeat of the railway unions may produce a broader victory for the labour movement in Canada, though it would be a pyrrhic one in view of the tragedy that has befallen Lac Megantic.

Anthony Lungu is a Toronto-based lawyer and holds an M.A. in humanities.

Photo: wikipedia commons

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