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Workers from CP Rail are returning to their jobs today following Federal back-to-work legislation. The bill was fast-tracked through Parliament over the past three days by Conservatives and Liberals, and championed by Labour Minister Lisa Raitt. This is the thiid major strike Harper’s government has forced back since winning a majority last year.

Negotiations will now enter Arbitration, with power to force a contract on the union. Though the strike is over, the effects are likely to linger for some time. It take “weeks” to clear the backlog, but years to forget about what happened here. In the long run, this will only One study from the CD Howe Institute found that back-to-work orders more than tripled the likelihood that the next round to be settled by arbitration or more back-to-work legislation, and led to contracts with wages averaging 2.9% less than similar contracts by the time of the next round. The resentment they generate often leads to more strikes as well as other types of job action, like slowdowns and work-to-rule campaigns.

For a final word on this strike, I turned again to my friend the Conductor about his thoughts about the issues, which are still far from resolved. He sent the following reply via text:

We, as workers, have to work extremely erratic schedules which often cause us to miss family events. Many of my coworkers have no recolection of periods of their children’s lives, only being caught up on the family status late at night when returning home. We are forced by economics to work when we’re tired. Not only does this wreck havoc on our sleep schedules, but also on our bodies. We continue to tolerate this schedule for decades because of the promise that one day we will be able to collect on a pension that will allow us to live comfortably for the remainder of our lives. Unfortuantely, due to the the abuse that our bodies have recieved, not only due to sleep deprivation (which studies show to be cumulative), but stress as well, many workers do not end up collecting many of those pension cheques. Due to CP’s greed, they are trying to claw back 40% of our pensions and allow us even fewer days off (unpaid). We are fed up with the company hiding behind the Federal Government to avoid making concessions. CP made 300% more profit in the first quarter of 2012 over 2011. The company (with aid from the government) is essentially trying to rob the working class of a comfortable retirement to enrich shareholders. We want a fair and balanced contract that allows us to work safely up to a good pension upon retirement.

Federal Labour minister Lisa Raitt is introducing legislation today directed at striking CP Rail workers. This had been a standing threat since the strike began last week, and mirrors similar laws Raitt and the Conservatives passed to end strikes at Canada Post and Air Canada. Opposition MPs with the NDP have sharply critiqued this move, with rumoured plans to Filibuster the bill before it can pass. Peggy Nash, herself a former union negotiator explained that the last week’s threats “take the pressure off employers”, stating that, “this government does not allow for free collective bargaining to find a resolve if they are constantly threatening to intervene on the side of the employer”.

This bill is a blatant gift to CP’s corporate directors, but also to Canada’s corporate leadership in general. Demands for this legislation have come from the mining, agriculture and fertilizer industries among others. While the press has covered their complaints about shipping, there’s been no suggestion that they stand to benefit from such strike-breaking even if they didn’t ship a single ounce of goods by rail. Intervening in another major, national strike sends a very simple message to unions: “don’t“. That kind of message is worth millions to every one of Canada’s corporate leaders.

In simple terms, this kind of behavior empowers corporate boardrooms the same way a street gang backs up its members. While their power and prestige is based (in theory) on winning fights, there’s rarely a chance of them actually losing – if they do, their “boys” will jump in. Anybody who’s attended a bar or high school knows where this leads – thugs who walk around starting fights they’ll never have to finish.

Harper’s “majority” all-but-ensures this back-to-work bill will pass. The NDP and Teamsters can protest, but there is little legal recourse left. Until a workforce refuses to obey this state-sponsored strike-breaking, the trend is going to continue. This isn’t to say that CP workers should (or even can) attempt something like this, but sooner or later somebody’s going to have to.

Negotiations between striking workers and company officials at CP rail broke down this afternoon, with the Teamsters walking away from the bargaining table. Federal labour minister Lisa Raitt is expected to table back-to-work legislation tomorrow. In response the NDP has threatened to filibuster and the union is organizing bus rides to Ottawa during the week.

Check back here for updates as they happen.

As Quebec’s infamous student strike now enters its 103rd day, a growing number of international eyes are focused on the province. Crowds filled the streets of Montreal, estimated by some at half a million and a quarter-million the following day. Wednesday also saw over six hundred arrests as police “kettled” huge numbers of demonstrators in an attempt to enforce the province’s new draconian anti-protest law, Bill 78. Last night demonstrators marched again, banging pots and pans, but with only a handfull of arrests. A growing number of voices, including those in parliament, are calling this the “worst crisis in Quebec’s history”, with five times as many arrested as during the FLQ crisis where martial law was declared. Wednesday night itself saw more arrests than Trudeau’s imposition of the War Measures Act. In the face of this determination, the government’s new Education Minister, Michelle Courchesne, has attempted a dramatic new tactic: she’s returning to the bargaining table.

Protests have now crossed the border into Ontario. University of Ottawa students have taken over administration offices in a growing protest against tuition increases. Others, elsewhere, are planned for the coming week. Toronto is due for solidarity protests today, and Hamilton is set for more next week. Tuesday’s 100-day anniversary solidarity actions, from Hamilton to New York and Paris, and the beginnings of a national outpouring of support.

For much of the strike, while coverage had been confined to Quebecois and major national media like the National Post, it has been scathing. Andrew Coyne’s recent piece for the National Post shows this reaction for the blatant hypocrisy it is – protests, his eyes, “cripple democracy” because they disobey the government (lol). Pundits have droned on about “entitlement” and lawlessness, but as word grows beyond the compliant Canadian press are taking a far more critical view of the Premier. Hard-line negotiating tactics, police brutality and unconstitutional laws aren’t a popular approach, and that usually becomes clear with a little more distance. As they face down wave after wave of arrests and beatings, with a few people now nearly killed and partially blinded, they have become the symbol of Canadian resistance to austerity, in a way we used to associate with Athens or Barcelona. This is indeed our “Maple Spring”.

How Are The Quebec Protests Being Reported Around The World? George Stroumboulopoulos (CBC)

Elsewhere, many other battles rage on. Protesters in London, Ont. disrupted hearings over attempts by Enbridge to pump Tar Sands oil through Southern Ontario. The Harper government has revealed more of it’s plans to “reform” EI, which threaten to cut off 5-10 000 recipients and force many into more distant jobs with less pay. Federal Conservatives are also trying (again) to dismiss a challenge of election results from ridings plagued by “robocalls”. And of course, they’re still threatening back-to-work legislation in the ongoing CP Rail strike.

As I’ve mentioned before, there’s a pretty strong correlation between cuts to social spending and these kinds of uprisings. As Harper and his pet premiers unleash austerity on the nation known well as the most financially stable in the G8, we can only expect more protests, strikes and (*gasp*) riots. Not only have these policies proven an absolute financial disaster in the Eurozone, they’ve also incited political unrest on a truly massive scale. Nobody who’s been following international news for the last year can claim they didn’t see this coming.

Protests like the student movement in Quebec always threaten to become about more than the issues which first put people into the streets. This is now about far more than tuition in Quebec – it’s about the right to demonstrate and a broad-based loathing for Charest and his policies. It’s come to include issues of development, corruption and capitalism itself, and it’s beginning to spread beyond Quebec. If the government doesn’t back down very gracefully and very soon, they’re going to have a revolution on their hands.

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.

As of now almost 5000 Canada-Pacific Rail workers are on strike. Beginning at 12:01 am operations ceased after workers went months without a contract, facing hard-line bargaining tactics. The company had threatened to shut down commuter rail lines as well, which depends on CP lines and union controllers in BC, Quebec and even GO in Hamilton, in spite of an offer from the union to keep them running but last-minute negotiations with Federal Labour Minister Lisa Raitt convinced the company to reconsider. Threats of back-to-work legislation have already circled, but Minister Raitt has stated at this point that she does not wish to “interfere”.

Pickets begin this morning. If you should wish to drop by with words of support or refreshments, Hamilton will see pickets at the Aberdeen Yard (by Longwood) and Kinnear Yard (by Gage Park).

Teamsters Canada Rail Conference – Division 295 (Toronto)
Teamsters Canada Rail Conference (also #TeamstersCanada or #TeamstersRail)

This past week Canada’s second largest railroad, Canada Pacific, was taken over by an American hedge fund. Pershing Square, led by notorious William Ackman, succeeded in deposing the existing board of directors in the climax to an ongoing battle between them and “activist” shareholders. Ackman, offended by the inefficiency of CP, decided to take matters into his own hands by buying up over a billion dollars worth of CP stock and lobbying other shareholders to take over the board, a bid which finally succeeded a few days ago when CEO Fred Green agreed to step down. Rumours are that Hunter Harrison who recently ran CN Rail is set to take over, which has many CP workers very worried.

What had been ignored until yesterday was the ongoing dispute with railroad workers, who had been working without a contract since January (likely awaiting this decision). A strike vote had already passed overwhelmingly weeks ago, and it was known that they’d be in a position to strike legally sometime this week. Yesterday, the Teamsters made it official, and 72 hours notice. CP rail is set to strike.

The fact that nearly half of Canada’s freight rail infrastructure is now facing work stoppages is pretty significant. How it escaped attention up until this point is beyond me. To see this happen within days of an American takeover is a pretty stunning. We’ve seen this pattern before with companies like Stelco and Electro-Motive, but both the scale and the time-frame here have set new records. If they do strike, the question now is whether workers will be legislated “back to work” the way airline workers, mail carriers and teachers have been recently.

No job is safe from this madness. From public sector jobs to publicly held corporations, we’re all at risk from the “activists of austerity”, to whom every worker in the first world is overpaid and under-worked. The CP workers deserve our support and solidarity in showing Bill Ackman and his hedge fund friends that Canadian workers aren’t just going to line up to be laid off. No matter how successful this coup has been, this is one tin-pot dictator who’s going to have a very hard time making the trains run on time.

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