The CP Rail strike has now entered its second day. As nearly 5000 went out yesterday, the company issued temporary lay-off notices to 2000 support staff and threatened 1400 more if the strike continues to next Monday. Negotiations continue, but Minister Lisa Raitt is again musing about back-to-work legislation if a settlement isn’t reached soon, joined by a growing chorus of corporate leaders from the mining and fertiliser industries.

According to Raitt’s estimates, this strike could cost $540 million a week. The unstated but obvious point here is that these workers are fairly essential for over a half billion in commerce every week. Like every “essential service” which faces the threat of back-to-work legislation, CP workers are considered too “essential” to do without, but nowhere near “important” enough to afford basic workplace rights. If this company is so essential to Canada, why wasn’t more attention paid last week when it was being taken over by an American hedge fund?

I spoke with a striking CP worker last night, an old friend who’d already been out to the lines several times. He seemed a lot more concerned with changes to the working conditions than pay issues. While having your pay increases frozen and pension plan turned into a glorified RRSP isn’t pleasant, the realities of railroad work make the rest-time issues a matter of life or death. These trains (as he stated many time) weigh thousands of tons and are worth millions of dollars – given what happened recently in Burlington, is this something any of us want to gamble with?

CP workers operate on an on-call system which cycles available workers and jobs. They could be “called in” any time, day or night, and in the meantime know only their position in line. Proposed changes from the company would restrict the number of days a month workers can book off “the board” to three (and they’ll still work if they get called two minutes before that begins). When finishing jobs they’re called for, changes would also force employees to finish 12-hour shifts shunting cars or serving customers at their destinations, rather than returning home or to the local hotel. Finally, at present, workers can give notice during the first 5 hours of their shift to be off by the 10th if they suddenly find themselves in need of rest. These measures, my friend points out, were adopted in the wake of disasters like the derailment in Mississauga in the late 70s, which caused most of the city to be evacuated. Adding additional risks are ongoing cuts to track and engine maintenance, also in the hopes of squeezing extra efficiency out of the company. “In the 80s,” my friend points out “Hamilton had four ‘work gangs’, one for each yard, with shifts on 24 hours a day. Today there’s one for the whole city, and it’s only on call”.

Redundancy, by definition, is not “efficient”. In the short term, these measures usually seem silly, costly and pointless – in the long term, they’re often essential. Things only have to go wrong once to make years of tiny “efficiencies” seem tragically short-sighted. Last week’s takeover of the company of “activist investor” Bill Ackman and hedge fund Pershing Square was based on the “need” for more efficiency at CP. By the time something goes seriously wrong, they may well be long gone. Workers and neighbours, however, will still have to deal with the consequences.

Anybody who pays much attention to transportation and energy issues knows that North America is due for a major rail overhaul. We’re decades behind Europe and many far poorer parts of the world, and rising gas prices are now causing us to question our reliance on cross-continental trucking. Anybody who thinks we’re going to need less trains, tracks, engineers or conductors in 20 years is living in a fantasy world. Now is not the time to cut funding from rail networks.

For the sake of all my friends at CP and CN that they’re able to turn back some of these cuts. I’ve long been fascinated by the work they do, as a friend of many train-punks and the father of a train-obsessed little boy. Until recently, this was one of the few “good” working-class careers left open to people my age through union jobs rather than temp agencies (less so with CN…). This work is hard, hectic and incredibly dangerous – they have to work whether it’s 35 degrees above or below zero, with lives, businesses and millions of dollars of goods and equipment depending on them. I used to assume, these days, that this was all done electronically, but virtually any action still requires workers on the ground, de-coupling cars, switching tracks or loading goods, then inspecting kilometres of cars before travelling incredible distances.

These workers are essential, and that’s the best reason I can name to take their plight seriously.