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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.

The student strike in Quebec has now captured international attention. It’s now been more than 2 months, over 160 protests have occurred and there are still 170 000 students out on strike. It seems every day the province’s streets are looking more like Athens in the wake of the ongoing battle over tuition fees. With battles breaking out across the country over new austerity measures, these youths are coming to symbolize the growing rage of a nation.

This renewed energy and attention comes in the wake of attempts by authorities to quell the strike with courts and cops. This led to an escalation of unrest, provoking students to become bolder in both tactics and demands. In the past week or so hundreds of Quebec students have been arrested. 95 more got nabbed Wednesday, signalling an official end to the three day “truce” and breakdown of negotiations. Around ninety were also arrested Saturday, as well as hundreds during the week between Montreal and Gatineau. Last weekend protesters crashed a convention Premier Charest was holding for “Plan Nord”, his newest privatization and development scheme for the province’s North. Charest has since offered a “concession” (a slightly larger increase over seven years instead of five), but that too has been rejected both in the votes of student organizations like CLASSE and on the streets by their supporters.

Much has been said about the fact that Quebec students pay some of the lowest tuition in the country. It’s the main talking point of their opponents, who use it to portray them as “entitled”, while dredging up familiar Quebecois stereotypes. The implication here is that tuition fees in provinces like Ontario aren’t a problem right now (which they are), and that Quebec somehow owes it to the rest of the country to likewise punish its young (they don’t). This is a familiar divisive refrain at this point, in which cuts are implemented under the guise of “fairness” with others who are even worse off. This sort of logic inevitably leads to a “race to the bottom”, where regions compete to reach a lowest common denominator of low wages, scarce services and enormous fees.

I have too many friends who will be in debt for decades to come after a few years at school, having borrowed enough money to buy cars or homes. I could tell many stories. Some about folks living with their parents well into their thirties, others about people who simply fled the country to escape their creditors. I know people who’ve spent months ‘pounding the pavement’, handing out resumes daily for months at a time. We were begged, bribed, and made a million promises about the “possibilities” which would come with our degrees, only to learn shortly afterward that in most cases, they actually made us less “employable” than before we set foot on campus. If I had one piece of advice for Quebec students, it would be “don’t let this happen to you”.

Tuition increases hit hard. While few hundred bucks a year may not seem like much, these increases add up quickly. They’re also only one part of the price of an education, which also includes living expenses, books, computers and fees (which tend to rise with them). Once this cost runs beyond what working students can afford or what (most) families can contribute, kids need to go into debt which only drives costs up further. This whole process normalizes living with massive debts, something which has become a way of life for a large part of my generation.

Tuition debts are a big issue. Not only has youth unemployment been central to unrest in nations like Egypt, Greece and Spain, but it’s becoming an increasingly important economic force as well. In the US, the ‘student debt bubble’ has now surpassed a trillion dollars, with many fearing that it will ‘pop’ much like the sub-prime mortgage market a few years ago. Under the pretense of “austerity” and balancing budgets, a generation of young people are being forced into colossal and unsustainable debts. This isn’t a matter of “slashing deficits” at all, it’s a case of passing them down the line.

Why do I support the student strikers? Because I’ve been to an Ontario university in the past few years, and I’ve seen where things are going here and elsewhere. It’s always easier to stop these measures before they start, and often nearly impossible to repeal them once in place. Somebody needs to make a stand, and send a message that endless tuition increases cannot go on forever. And, perhaps most of all, because this is probably the most “educational” year of school most of these kids will ever experience. They’re not reading about history – they’re making it.

Over the past two days, large, dramatic and unconventional strike actions have dominated the news…

Student Strike Still Growing
On Thursday, depending on estimates, a hundred thousand or so demonstrators converged on downtown Montreal in opposition to rising tuition fees. Around three hundred thousand students are now on strike, representing the, latest escalation in this weeks-long battle, in which neither side shows any sign of backing down. Since this began, students have marched, occupied buildings and blocked bridges in their attempt to keep Canada’s lowest tuition rates.

Return of the Wildcat!
Thursday night Federal Labour Minister Lisa Raitt caused a bit of a stir when she walked off an plane at Pearson airport in Toronto, where Air Canada workers began to heckle, showing their displeasure at recent legislation away their right to strike. Three workers were suspended as a result, a move which quickly inflamed tensions. Support workers began to walk off the job in an illegal wildcat strike which spread to Montreal, Vancouver and elsewhere, leading to the cancellation of around 80 flights and causing enormous damage to the company’s “brand image“. After about thirteen hours, strikers were forced back to work by a court injunction along with promises that nobody would be punished.

While all this happened, a group of Toronto anarchists and others took the opportunity to occupy Minister Raitt’s office.

Air Canada has been battling several unions for over a month now, and has resorted to help from the Harper government to legally block strikes by pilots and support workers (baggage handlers, ground crews etc). Air Canada has also earned scorn regarding the mass-termination of Aveos employees, a major Air Canada contractor, provoked a conflict with the union representing is laid off workers Tuesday when a few hundred former workers, blocking the road to Aveos and Air Canada offices, ended up clashing with riot police.

Another General Strike
Thursday also meant a General Strike in Portugal, one of the many poorer EU nations now grappling with a debt crisis, mass unemployment and harsh austerity measures. Large parts of the small country were brought to a standstill as ports, schools, roads, trains and public transit were brought to a halt by strikers. Small clashes with police were reported, with two reporters from the state news service among those injured by cops.

Strikes Everywhere
It’s not just the number of strikes that’s remarkable here, or how far they’re reaching. The return wildcat, student and general strikes shows how the tactics and movements themselves are changing. Actions like these haven’t been seen on a scale like this since the revolutionary tumults of the 1960s. Autonomous direct actions like these were once the norm, in the days of the “Wobblies” and other radical, grassroots unions which fought for worker’s rights before such organizations were protected by law.

The wave of austerity programs which are now sweeping the western world are provoking a powerful backlash. While many took to the streets and occupied parks last fall, the drive to cut wages and jobs has only intensified. In response, people are taking their resistance to the next level. While these corporations and governments may be massive and powerful, they could never function without huge networks of workers and willing participants. When even a few groups decide to stop participating, it can disrupt the entire system, especially when it threatens to inspire others to do the same. It’s no coincidence that revolutions are often associated with student and general strikes, as they threaten the functioning of society in ways no simple “protest” ever could.

Within another few days Canada is expecting a Federal “austerity” budget, and Spain is due for the next general strike. As news of these actions and others spreads, we can only expect many more conflicts like these in the coming months, both here and abroad. Major demonstrations at parliament and wide-ranging strikes across the continent are now being planned for early May. Some are even beginning to call it the “Maple Spring”. It may still be too early to tell whether this will be enough to reverse the impending cuts, but it now seems certain that little else can.

Across Canada right now, educational institutions are in turmoil. In the wast, BC’s teachers are now on strike. Throughout Quebec, there’s been student strikes at universities across the province. On the east coast, Dalhousie faculty and staff are threatening to strike after this weekend. These conflicts rise out of sweeping eduction cuts now being witnessed across the country, another example of our nation’s new commitment to “austerity”

British Columbia
Public teachers in BC return to work today after striking since Monday and may walk out for another day days next week. The provincial government has maintained it’s position of net-zero increases in pay and benefits and refused to make any concessions. Teachers are now under threat of back-to-work legislation which would eliminate seniority systems, remove class size caps and place broad, sweeping limits on their ability to strike or protest for a “cooling off” period extending for the rest of the year. A rally was held yesterday in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery and on Tuesday in front of Victoria’s legislature. Job actions such as work-to-rule are planned to continue as long as possible.

After attempting to substantially raise tuition fees, student strikes broke out across the province with rumours of over 120 000 high school and post-secondary students now participating. Yesterday tensions erupted as protesters rallied around a number of government buildings and attempted to enter the Loto-Quebec headquarters (which included University administration offices) and were attacked by riot police with batons, tear gas and pepper spray. This isn’t the first time police have been called in to remove marchers from blocking the Jaques Cartier Bridge late last month, also with pepper spray.

Over eight hundred professors at Dalhousie University are set to strike Monday, very possibly followed by support workers soon after. This comes in a city awash with such actions at the moment, as health-care and transit workers are also striking.

Locally, Premier McGuinty is now demanding a wage-freeze from teachers, backed by threats of implementing cuts suggested in a recent report by economist Don Drummond, such as eliminating all-day kindergarten and class-size caps. Unions have requested a meeting with the premier, but been rejected.

On the national scale, word is that Harper plans to unveil the new “austerity budget” at the end of this month. Air Canada workers are threatening to go on strike next week, with Harper already talking back-to-work legislation, much like with Canada Post. With austerity likely to strike at provincial levels as well, given troubling signs like the Drummond Report in Ontario, all signs point to a brutal year ahead for Canadian workers.

Protests continued in Wisconsin today, continuing to captivate a nation and beyond. In most recent news, Gov. Walker was caught unaware by a prank phone call from a blogger pretending to be notorious billionaire David Koch, who’s recently become a focus of in the controversy. In the call, Walker explains his extensive anti-union plans and compares himself to Ronald Reagan. Protests in Ohio have ramped up with thousands turning out to oppose their own anti-union bill, causing their own government to rethink the clauses which would outlaw collective bargaining. And Egyptian protesters have turned out made a statement of solidarity with Wisconsin workers.

Mideastern and African protests have also continued, with Libya taking centre stage. As many as a thousand people may now have been killed in a civil war for control of the country. Many cities have now declared independence from the Gaddafi and rebels quickly moving toward the capital, fighting aerial bombings and foreign mercenaries

Greece has once again been gripped by massive street protests and a nationwide general strike. This is the ninth such general strike to protest unpopular austerity measures.

These are but a few more snippets of the hundreds of thousands of people who took to the streets around the world today, in a movement which shows no signs of slowing. As we all sit captivated, around the world, watching one city after another stand up to its tyrants, we can only wait and wonder what would happen if we got that text message?

Viva les revolutions.

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