Back-to-Work Legislation Ends Teamsters Railway Strike
Teamsters on the Canadian Pacific Railway will be ordered to end their nine-day strike shortly, when Parliament sends them back to work.
Government back-to-work legislation is becoming a trend in Canada. CP is the third private company to receive that form of government help against its workforce since the Conservatives were elected in January 2006 (Canadian National Railway was the first, and Air Canada was the second). The pace has increased since the Conservatives were re-elected with a majority in May 2011. All this follows an eight-year period (1999-2007) when the federal government actually resisted the temptation to interfere in the free collective bargaining process.
The Teamsters struck primarily because CP wants to slash pension benefits—its preferred method would be by introducing an inferior plan (defined-contribution) for new hires and for future service of existing employees. CP claims it wants to cut its pension costs and retirees’ health benefits to the level of its larger competitor, CN (Canadian National).
One conductor told Labor Notes: “There isn't a whole lot workers can do in terms of fixing things with a strike, when the government can just step in and say: ‘The strike is over, go back to work.’ It happened with Air Canada and Canada Post not too long ago, and the teachers face it every time they want to get something fixed.”
We discussed the strike and the government’s action with Abe Rosner, a recently retired national representative for the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW), which represents repair and maintenance employees on the Canadian Pacific.
MG: Who was out on strike?
AR: Locomotive engineers, conductors, and rail traffic controllers were all out. They’re about 4,800, and are represented by the Teamsters’ Canada Rail Conference.
There are three national railways in Canada: CN and CP are freight and Via is the equivalent of Amtrak and is government-owned. CN and CP are private; CN was privatized in ’95 and CP is one of the oldest private companies of any size in the country.
Other unions at CP include the CAW, which represents shop craft employees who inspect trains and repair and maintain locomotives and rail cars, and the IBEW (Electrical Workers) which represents signal maintainers. The USW (steelworkers) represents clericals.
Interestingly, there’s another bargaining unit at CP that’s Teamsters and they didn’t go out. That’s the maintenance of way people, track maintenance. Like the other unions I mentioned, they have a collective agreement in place and they can’t legally strike if they wanted to.
MG: None of those unions were able to honor the picket lines?
AR: None were able to legally stay off the job. Contrary to the pattern till about 15 years ago, all the unions tend to have different expiration dates. At one time it was pretty uniform across the industry.
MG: The Teamsters are notable in the U.S. for maintaining language that allows locals to honor picket lines. Does that not exist in Canada?
AR: Not in the railway industry, where the Teamsters are relatively new, having replaced the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and then the United Transportation Union over the last decade. They basically inherited the traditional railway collective agreements and language that were in place.
Even where such language does exist, it could shield workers from being disciplined by their employer if they honored someone else’s picket line—for example, outside truckers not crossing a railway picket line, which thankfully happens quite often. But when one group in the railway is on a legal strike, and another group (even belonging to the same union) has a collective agreement, the non-striking workers can’t refuse to go to work so long as the company provides them with “safe passage.” That’s how Canadian law operates.
Workers in this situation can legally refuse to perform the work of those who are on legal strike or lockout. But in a strike like this one, that’s a non-issue. The work of engineers, conductors, and controllers is so specialized that other unionized railway workers couldn’t be called on to do it anyway.
WHY A STRIKE?
MG: How did the Teamsters arrive at this strike?
AR: I’m not close enough to the scene to comment on the exact timing and unfolding of events. But as I indicated before, it’s pretty clear that they were facing a dramatically new and frustrating situation. This is the first time to my knowledge that any railway company has demanded concessions and reductions in pensions. With the current onslaught against defined-benefit pension plans by employers, with the help of the Harper Conservative government, CP obviously feels the timing is right to push this issue stubbornly.
With significant demands of their own on the table not being addressed (fatigue management and other rules), the Teamsters’ bargaining team obviously felt they were left with no choice in the matter—and they enjoyed an overwhelming strike mandate from their members.
Speaking for my own union, in the past we’ve tried various ways to pressure the railway employers without stopping all the trains from running, while simultaneously doing as much politically as we can to have allies saying the right things, in order to avoid legislation forcing us back to work.
That happened for example in 1988 on CP, where we deliberately struck only one railway (the “tradition” had been to strike all or none), and we used rotating, hit-and-run tactics. Our strike lasted over three months, and we ultimately settled without giving the prime concessions the employer wanted. This was the first time in decades that a national railway strike had managed to avoid back-to-work legislation. The “price,” of course, was a long and difficult struggle for our members, but at least the result was freely bargained.
In 2004 the CAW had a month-long strike at CN, and CN managed to continue running trains on a somewhat reduced level, using management personnel to do our members’ work. They lost some money and some business, but we were able to settle and get a deal our members ratified, without government interference. Those have been the exceptions. And on reflection, had this current government been in power in 2004, things might have gone differently.
This time, the Teamsters had some serious demands of their on work rule issues and fatigue. These workers are basically always on call, day or night. It’s not a job most people could manage. Social and family life constantly have to be juggled with the demands of the work. Part of the reason for their better pay is to compensate for that. And on top of all that, they were faced with the urgent need to protect what the company’s trying to take away in pension and retiree benefits.
MG: Why did they feel the need to go on strike to protect those benefits?
AR: Again, not knowing all the factors, I can’t second-guess their decision. There’s no doubt that government intervention in response to stopping the trains was totally predictable.
Could they have engaged in job or protest actions short of paralyzing the whole network, along the lines of what others did on some earlier occasions? To be fair, I don’t know whether the Teamsters, whose members are directly and critically involved in operating the trains, could run job actions which would hurt the employer’s bottom line without attracting back-to-work legislation. All I know is that given the stridently pro-employer stand of this current government, all railway workers, regardless of union, would do well to have a broad discussion about new ways of fighting back.
On one occasion in the early 1990s, when we were facing an extreme concession demand and assessed that the balance of power wasn’t in our favor, we just carried on working without a collective agreement for over three years. No strike—and no lockout. When conditions changed, we were able to recuperate our losses. We got lucky, I think.
The union may have decided CP was serious about the pension demand and had decided on a lockout. We’ve seen that this government doesn’t care who triggers the fight, they’ll intervene and put an end to it. There’s the example of Canada Post last year—responding to hit-and-run union tactics by locking everyone out and (surprise!) getting immediate government back-to-work legislation. The Teamsters may have assessed that even if they didn’t strike, intervention was inevitable.
Are the Teamsters perhaps counting on an arbitrator who is reluctant to do major surgery on a pension plan? Arbitrators—third parties who have the power to rewrite collective agreements—have been historically reluctant to touch pensions, because they know how closely held they are, how important they are. Usually it’s been union demands for pension improvements, and those have only been secured through free bargaining. This time, for the first time, it’s a company demand—and there’s perhaps an expectation that an arbitrator will act as conservatively as they have before.
The strength and solidarity of railway workers, and of the labor movement as a whole, has taken a hit in recent years, with the economic crisis and with the combined assault by governments and corporations to shift their burden onto workers. Given that whole scene, the Teamsters may have calculated that they little choice but to bring matters to a head, even though it meant unavoidable government intervention.
MG: It would seem like the union has a lot of potential power because this is work that can’t be scabbed—or at least not quickly.
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AR: In a perfect world, that would be true. There are only two provinces that have anti-scab legislation. The federal labor code (which is the one relevant to national railways and other transport modes, banks, broadcasting, etc.) doesn’t have those provisions.
In this case, however, there was no move to replace the workers, for reasons that I mentioned earlier.
MG: Why would the employer feel any need to replace workers? There’s a government ready to do their bidding.
AR: Exactly, it’s become much cheaper and quicker —just call the government.
FIFTH INTERVENTION IN A YEAR
MG: This is the fifth time in a year the Canadian government has intervened in a labor dispute. That’s quite a pattern.
AR: Yes, it is, and they don’t even wait for strikes any more. At Canada Post, job actions were delaying but not stopping mail delivery. Government intervention came after the employer shut everything down. During the most recent interventions at Air Canada— legislating an end to the dispute with the Machinists’ union (mechanics and baggage handlers) and the pilots—no one was on strike or lockout. Strike-breaking has now become “preventive”!
MG: This pattern of intervention seems to hamstring bargaining. How do you achieve anything at the table if the employer is confident it can turn around and have the government do what won’t happen at the table?
AR: It makes it extremely difficult for a union to exercise what the Supreme Court of Canada has found is a constitutionally protected right, the right to collectively bargain.
It’s a huge disadvantage, but it’s not entirely new. The government interference over the last year has been in the very same industries (national transportation, postal service, and some others) which have seen government interference over many decades.
In the railway industry the only strikes in the past century that have been “allowed” to run their course are those where the trains have continued to run, even on a reduced basis. This time, even though the other larger freight railway is still fully operational, the government claimed that the shutdown of CP’s network was wreaking havoc on coal mining, agricultural, and automobile sectors, that “the economy” was losing a half billion dollars per week, and that it had to act to protect “the economy.” This has become this government’s routine pretext for depriving workers of their democratic and constitutional rights.
Workers have no choice but to start looking at different and innovative ways to defend themselves and advance their cause.
INFLUENCING THE GOVERNMENT
MG: It seems it has turned union attention to the political realm, focusing more on the federal government in Ottawa than on their employer.
AR: That’s true to an extent, but there are serious limits to what can be achieved in the current context.
Opposition parties—even when willing to do so—haven’t been particularly effective at doing more than delaying strike-breaking legislation for a few days. I remember in ’95 when all three railways were shut down by strikes and lockouts, we had friends in Parliament, the New Democratic Party and the Bloc Quebecois, who at our urging filibustered for a few days. It took eight days but the legislation went through anyway because there was a majority government, as there is now.
Workers have memories. When the NDP (which is now the official federal opposition) has been in power provincially, there’s hardly an instance where it hasn’t put an end to strikes, too, or ignored collective agreements—all the same things the Conservative government has done in the last year since it attained a majority. Workers need more than fair-weather allies in the political realm.
MG: This sends unions running to the courts, a venue we can’t really control. How should we evaluate the fact that unions are turning to lawsuits and political champions instead of strategies that affect production?
AR: Those are necessary parts of the battle, but they have inherent limitations. Some workers are starting to look in new directions.
One example is the current merger discussions between CEP [Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union] and CAW. Actually, it’s more than a merger—the aim is to build a brand new union. Top-down mergers are not exciting events, but it’s given rise to a lot of discussion about how to build new models of getting workers together with communities and of recruiting members to the union who are not employed or who aren’t represented in a particular workplace. How do we change the model so that we are not always fighting losing battles, within old frameworks that don’t work very well anymore, and where union density declines in its traditional sectors while newer sectors resist the old methods of organizing?
Some people are talking about linking that up with other movements. Look at the student movement in Quebec, it’s huge—over 150,000 students into their fourth month of strike action against tuition fee hikes and a government crackdown on peaceful demonstrations We don’t know where it will end up but everyone’s inspired by it. With a very decentralized structure, they have the government running around in circles not knowing what to do. Many workers are watching and getting involved, and wondering whether there are lessons to be learned for their own struggles, and whether and how it makes sense to link up more concretely with other social movements. The unions are actively backing the students’ struggle in Québec, but lots more can be done.
Mind you, I don’t want to discount what’s possible in the courts. Courts have been more activist in protecting workers’ rights than governments have. Workers have to fight on all fronts because they haven’t found one that works yet.
MG: The CP strike took place soon after the company came under control of a private equity firm. Is there a link?
AR: CP is looking to cut costs. It’s lagged behind CN, where the operating ratio—the cost of running the operation divided by revenue—is much better. A private equity capitalist from New York quietly acquired 15 percent of shares of CP and launched a proxy battle, which he won earlier this month with the resignation of the CEO and a takeover of the board. That battle was playing itself out, and the effect it may have had was to firm up CP’s resolve at the bargaining table.
MG: The numbers that management throws around are extraordinary. Are people really taking home 75K a year in pension?
AR: It’s possible. Locomotive engineers are the highest paid group. If you’ve worked 35 years before retiring, you could earn that much. They are good pensions, no question about it. At CN there’s a maximum pension of about $60,000, which really bugs CP because they don’t have that ceiling.
The bigger issue is that employers in general are on the offensive against defined-benefit pension plans. With years of low interest rates, pension plans haven’t been earning enough return on investment to remain solvent on their own, meaning that employers need to put in more money from general revenues. At one time, employers were taking “contribution holidays,” because return on investment plus employee contributions were more than sufficient. Obviously, you heard no complaints from them in those days. But now, they’re trying to create a social consensus that such plans must disappear.
MG: Good pensions are harder to defend when the rest of the working class resents your pension.
AR: They are particularly hard to defend when employer propaganda feeds the notion that whatever one section of the working class has must have been taken from another section—that it’s a zero-sum game. That’s the big lie that needs to be combated.
MG: Attaching pensions to single employers seems like a losing strategy in the long term, as we’ve seen for health insurance in the U.S. What’s the way out of that trap?
AR: Workplace plans need to be defended, and workers will go to the wall on that. But you’re right in the bigger scheme of things. Part of the solution is to have a public plan that begins to replace significant amounts of income for retirement.
We have such plans in Canada: the defined-benefit government-run Canada Pension Plan (and its Quebec counterpart). Every worker in Canada and every employer make matching contributions to it. At the maximum, it will pay a retiree about $12,000, which is one-quarter of the average industrial wage. That’s besides “Old Age Security,” which every Canadian receives (not connected with employment) at age 65, around $500 per month.
In 2009, the Canadian Labour Congress launched a major campaign aimed at doubling the basic pension paid under the defined-benefit Canada Pension Plan—and of course increasing employee and employer contributions—phasing it in over a number of years. Obviously such a success would go a long way toward more equitable distribution of retirement benefits across the workforce, as well as potentially reducing the cost of (and the pressure to get rid of) private workplace plans.
The campaign went well, with most provincial governments supporting the basic concept, and federal-provincial talks took place. But when one government (Alberta) balked in 2010, the federal Conservatives had a much-needed excuse to pull the plug on the whole conversation. Instead they proposed a system of defined-contribution plans, which still leave workers’ savings liable to the whims of the market instead of being a collective social responsibility.