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CN workers say strike is about safety

CN workers on the picket line just off First Avenue in Prince George. Bill Phillips photo

Day 3 on the picket line and spirits are high among Teamsters members on strike against CN Rail.

They have a burn-barrel set up on their picket line just off First Avenue in Prince George in front of the city’s railyards. A CN Rail security guard is set up a few metres away with a propane torch set up for heat.

“It’s good for solidarity,” says Nathan Griggs, Teamsters Canada Rail Conference representative, of the picket line, which is being manned around the clock. “There’s lots of people we haven’t met and we’re meeting for the first time.”

The striking employees are conductors, trainmen, and yard persons for CN so they don’t often meet during their regular work day.

The strike isn’t about wages, he says.

“It’s all about safety and better working conditions for us, more rest, and just trying to be more safe about our jobs,” Griggs says.

Sleep-related fatigue has been an issue for railway workers for years.

In Prince George there are two separate agreements … the CN agreement with 109 people represented, and the former BC Rail workers, representing about 95 workers.

The 200 local workers are among 3,200 across Canada who have been strike since earlier this week.

“For the last several months, CN has been working with the TCRC-CTY to negotiate a new collective agreement,” says JJ Ruest, CN President and Chief Executive Officer in a statement issued Thursday. “Despite our efforts, the union leadership has rejected our offers and called a strike that is impacting our employees, our customers, and the Canadian economy. We have proposed to present our arguments to a neutral arbitrator to end this dispute, and we hope the union will be willing to do the same. Through binding arbitration, a neutral arbitrator would hear our positions and make a decision.”

Earlier this year, CN concluded 11 agreements with unions, representing approximately 7,000 union members. In 10 of those ratified agreements, the company provided annual compensation adjustments better than inflation, Ruest said. Those agreements improved benefits, including short-term disability, basic life insurance, maternity leave, vision care, and dental; and also included employee share purchase plans. The final agreement covers 1,000 independent owner/operators working for CNTL and includes compensation adjustments in line with the other agreements. Moreover, while the current average salary of a Canadian conductor is $114,000 plus benefits, including a defined benefits pension plan, the union is seeking wage and benefit improvements beyond those negotiated this year with Unifor and another bargaining unit of the TCRC.

He also dismisses the union’s contention that the strike is about safety issues.

“Although the union has claimed that the strike was about safety, those statements do not reflect our discussions,” he said. “For the safety concerns raised, we have proposed viable solutions because we want all employees to go home safely at the end of their shift.

“As you may know, railcars may be coupled with the use of a remotely controlled locomotive while crews are safely positioned. No employee is ever asked to work unsafely. Any employee that feels fatigued or has safety concerns has a duty to report it and use alternative means to complete his/her assigned task safely. CN’s negotiating team and the operations experts on our committee feel that our demands are in line with improvements to our employees’ work environment and our customers’ business.”

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