3,200 Canadian National workers walked out last week, paralyzing freight traffic and prompting fears of a heating gas shortage
Canada’s largest rail strike in more than a decade has paralyzed much of the nation’s freight traffic and prompted fears of a heating gas shortage as winter sets in.
Nearly 3,200 workers at Canadian National, the country’s largest rail operator, walked off the job on 19 November, to protest against chronic overwork and unsafe conditions.
“Wages are not a key issue as part of this dispute. It’s fatigue. It’s health and safety,” said Christopher Monette, a representative at Teamsters Canada, which represents workers at CN. “Nobody likes being on strike, but we’ve been bargaining here for seven months. Our back is against the wall.”
Unionized workers at CN have been without a contract since 23 July but talks between the two sides have made little progress.
Rail workers in Canada have long warned against the growing dangers of chronic fatigue. While employees are given their schedules in advance, last minute changes to shifts can mean long days and night on the job with little rest in between. Some shifts can last as long as 42 hours, say workers.
“That’s longer than the average workweek for any Canadian, and we make three of those usually a week,” Matt Wade, a CN worker, told Global News on the picket lines. “All we’re asking for is to be fit and rested to go to work and have time with our loved ones. It’s as simple as that.”
On Monday afternoon, Teamsters released audio of a conductor refusing to operate a train because of excessive fatigue. The worker was later suspended 14 days without pay, said Monette.
“You’re on call 24/7. Once you get that call, you’ve got two hours to show up to work,” he said – adding the calls can come after shifts were recently completed. “You can’t even drive under those circumstances, let alone operate at 20,000 ton train.”
Canada’s transportation safety board has identified fatigue as a major problem in the industry and found that it was a contributing factor to nearly 100 investigations over the last 27 years, including a number of derailments.
As the strike enters its second week, industries across the country have started to feel the effects. Pulp companies have been unable to source critical chemicals and in the prairies, already grappling with a poor harvest, farmers have been unable to ship their crops of canola, wheat and barley; Canadian National runs half of the elevators in the region.
In Quebec, where farmers have also been hit with a wet harvest, propane used to power grain dryers is in short supply. With much of the propane shipped in by rail, the province’s premier, François Legault, has called the growing shortage an “emergency” as supply dwindles.
Quebec has already begun rationing its reserve of 12m litres, which would typically be enough supply for two days. While the majority of workers are on strike, a number of trains are still moving. A train carrying 20m litres of propane was expected to arrive in Quebec on Monday, giving the province enough propane until Thursday.
Trudeau has so far resisted calls from Legault and federal Conservatives to call parliament back to session in order to introduce legislation that would force an end to the strike.
Instead, the Liberal party argues that collective bargaining is the best way to end the prolonged dispute.