Government acts to halt Canadian rail strike

A week ago Canadian Pacific Railway (CP) workers went on strike to thwart attempts by the company to pad profits by reducing pensions and making CP jobs less safe. On Tuesday, the Canadian House of Commons sided with the company and its investors  when it passed a bill ordering the strikers back to work. The bill now goes to the Senate.

If the bill passes the Senate as expected, workers will be forced back to work and the issues that led to the strike will be resolved through binding arbitration. This is the third time that the Conservative government led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper has intervened in a national labor dispute on the side of business.

Doug Finnson, Vice-President of the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference (TCRC), which represents the 4,800 striking workers, called the government’s back-to-work legislation “outrageous” but said that if enacted, strikers would return to work on Thursday.

CP and the Teamsters, which represents engineers, trainpersons, conductors, yardmen, and rail traffic controllers, have been negotiating a new contract since October 2011. The contract expired on December 31, 2011, but both sides agreed to continue negotiating while workers continued to work under the old contract.

Robert Bouvier, Teamsters Canada president,  said that the company never negotiated in good faith but instead sought deep concessions that would “enrich a handful of shareholders at the expense of workers.”

CP’s biggest shareholder is the US hedge fund Pershing Square Capital Management, which recently won a CP Board of Directors’ proxy fight that led to the resignation of former CEO Fred Green.

According to Canada’ Globe and Mail, CP, which reported a 2011 profit of CAD$570 million, hoped that it could negotiate a new contract that would reduce pension benefits by as much as 40 percent. CP’s determination to cut pensions was a major reason that 95 percent of TCRC members voted in April to authorize a strike.

“Canadian Pacific wants to (reduce) pensions that workers have accumulated through years of hard work (so it can be more profitable),” Bouvier said. “Meanwhile, management within in the same pension plan are scheduled for increases despite contributing nearly half of what our members contribute.”

In addition to pension reductions, CP is seeking changes to work rules that would make many of its workers work longer and harder and spend more time away from their families. The union says that these proposed changes would make fatigue management more difficult and will lead to safety problems on the rails.

“Fatigue for our members is a reality, not a figment of our imagination,”Finnison said. “Is it too much to ask for our members to be able to sleep at home two days in a row, twice a month?”

The wife of a CP engineer tweeted to the TCRC that her husband’s hectic schedule that often includes 12-hour shifts and days away from home takes a heavy toll on family life. “Family time takes a back seat to work,” she said.

The strike has hurt Canada’s national economy.  For example, $50 million worth of grain is stuck in elevators on Canada’s plains.

The economic impact of the strike and the fact that negotiations between the union and CP broke down on Sunday when a federal mediator assisting the two sides reach a deal withdrew from the bargaining table led Labor Minister Lisa Raitt to introduce the back-to-work legislation on Monday.

This was the third time that the Conservative government has intervened in a national labor dispute. Earlier this year it passed legislation that prevented a strike at Air Canada, and last year, it intervened to stop a strike that turned into a lockout at Canada Post, the country’s postal system.

The government’s readiness to weaken labor’s position in the collective bargaining process caused Paul Moist, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees to denounce the intervention. “This kind of interference in collective bargaining at Canadian Pacific, a private company, continues to signal to business that this government is squarely on the side of the employer,” wrote Moist to Raitt. “Your government has repeatedly failed to remain neutral during industrial disputes and to respect free collective bargaining.”

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