Elected officials took different approaches to handling the Canadian National Railway strike — but none of them come out of it looking good.
When roughly 3,200 yard workers and train conductors represented by the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference walked off the job Nov. 19, they did so in protest of safety concerns. They highlighted issues related to worker fatigue.
Railway accidents did increase last year, and the number of fatalities related to railways remains above 50 people each year. The workers had every right to take a stand and strike. Like it or not, it’s a constitutional right.
Which is why the almost immediate calls to end the strike with back-to-work legislation, coming notably from Alberta and the opposition Conservatives, were premature.
Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage and Agriculture Minister Devin Dreeshen made the request less than 12 hours after the strike started. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer made similar calls a few hours after that.
When Scheer and federal cabinet minister-turned premier Jason Kenney were members of Parliament in 2012, the governing Conservative party they belonged to waited six days before enacting legislation to end a Canadian Pacific Ltd. strike. A few years later, the threat of doing the same was enough to convince the union and railway to agree on a contract.
But Scheer and Kenney are aware the logistics of implementing such legislation in this case would be complicated.
Beyond requiring the prime minister to reconvene Parliament early, elect a speaker and deliver a throne speech, the Liberals would also have to become bedfellows with the Conservatives and in doing so run the risk of alienating the labour-friendly NDP — whose support they likely need to govern.
So while it was clever politics to attempt to put the Liberals in an awkward spot, that’s all it was — politics. And one wonders how tired of politics Canadians are getting.
That isn’t to say there should not have been a real and urgent desire amongst politicians to see the strike end. Roughly half of the elevators operating in Prairie provinces are serviced by CN, and the strike added stress to farmers in an already trying year.
The last thing they needed was for their crops to be held captive by a railway strike. Ongoing trade issues with China and others are enough of a market access headache; farmers don’t need any other barriers getting product to market.
Which is why the lackadaisical approach from the federal government was equally disheartening.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals know they are strongly disliked among people living in Prairie provinces. They know farmers, negatively affected by the CN strike, wanted a resolution sooner rather than later.
A simple statement from the federal government after the strike started was not enough. At a time when optics matter more than ever, the Liberals should have held a press conference and outlined their strategy to see an end to the strike.
Rather than expressing hope an agreement could be made and encouraging mediation, the federal government could have laid out other options it was considering in the event the strike carried on.
But the federal talking points stayed basically the same, despite industry groups and opposing politicians looking for more than the regular cheery optimism being offered. In the end, the Teamsters thanked specific federal ministers for their work, indicating they were active behind the scenes. But at a time when prominent politicians are claiming a national unity crisis, it would serve the Liberals to operate outside of the shadows on matters like this.
The day before the strike ended, Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau told reporters in Saskatchewan she hoped both sides would get to an agreement. This is a nice sentiment – and her hope came true – but it was hardly reassuring to farmers sitting on a backlog of goods.
Despite the strike ending, that backlog won’t disappear. Already some industry groups are worried about the coming months.
CN’s 2019-20 Winter Plan, required by law to be created, speaks to its improved resilience to challenges, trumpeting its capacity improvements, particularly in Saskatchewan and Alberta.
How resilient it really is will be tested by the brief, but impactful strike.
The federal government should now push, as the Agriculture Producers Association of Saskatchewan suggests, CN to update its Winter Plan and offer transparency on how it intends to ensure the crop farmers worked so very hard to harvest is transported efficiently.
Political opponents of the federal government now have an opportunity to work with Ottawa toward a shared goal, perhaps offering Canadians something more tangible than tired politics.