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Strike by railroad communications technicians could impact safety, supply chain

Railroad communications technicians with The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) are nearing the end of two full weeks on strike from the Canadian National Railway Company (CN) with no new negotiation dates, and therefore no end in sight. A long strike would be another devastating blow to Canada’s supply chains, which have already been affected by the pandemic as well as by mudslides and flooding in British Columbia, resulting in delayed goods and higher prices.

CN Locomotive 5616. Image Courtesy of Canadian National Railway Company.

Brendan McCue is the business manager and union representative for IBEW Local 2010, which represents workers from Cornwall to Newcastle here in Ontario. 

According to McCue, IBEW railroad communications technicians perform all types of work, generally recognized as communications work, according to their agreements with various carriers. They work with microwave, radio, fibreoptics, telephone and other communications devices, apparatus, and equipment, and they operate, maintain, and repair these systems in shops, yards, buildings, locomotives, and all areas necessary for proper communication in Canada. The IBEW also represents several other classes of railroad workers as certified and per agreements with particular carriers.

In Canada, approximately 71 per cent of all freight is shipped by rail. IBEW members play a major role in keeping this vital mode of transportation rolling. Railroad signal and communication members are responsible for all electrical and electronic equipment throughout the country. Protection of the population is key; one of the significant tasks is ensuring all railroad crossings in Canada function properly.

“Our systems are inspecting trains as they go through the communities,” said McCue. “We have dangerous goods commodities inspection stations on either side of Kingston… we make sure that when these trains are… going through Kingston… [or] any community, they go safely… Our main goal is protecting the public… trains are massive machines that can have a great impact on someone’s life if there’s contact with them.”

“CN has shown itself to be very recession-proof,” McCue continued. “CN made over $23 billion in net profit in the last five years… and they’re doing it on the backs of the workers. We just want to be compensated fairly. We are a very small part of the company – 750 members – but we punch very much above our weight class as we ensure the operation of the signal system.”

Steve Martin, Senior General Chairman for System Council No. 11 of the IBEW, stated in a press release, “The Union’s negotiating committee has worked tirelessly over the past eight months to achieve a fair and reasonable settlement for our members. It is unfortunate that CN has refused our most recent offer, leaving us with only one option with hopes of achieving a negotiated settlement, that is to remove our services.” 

The union entered into bargaining last fall with a proposal for what it calls “reasonable benefit and wage increases along with amendments to existing work rules.”

“CN has refused the Union’s request for a fair and reasonable wage increase over a span of three years. This is despite the Union compromising on many Union issues, and even acquiescing to Company demands to increase the amount of inter-provincial travel and the time a member spends away from their home and family,” Martin explained in the statement.

Currently, McCue said, “CN is replacing a highly-skilled, diverse workforce with hired scabs: a skeleton management crew who, in many cases, have not worked on these systems in years or in decades. When these systems break or fault, the result is a delay in train movement and the movement of goods across the country. In a road crossing, a fault adds delays to pedestrians and the motoring public.”

McCue stated that some of the workers brought in to replace striking employees are workers who were previously “fired for negligence.”

Despite a request for comment, CN did not respond by time of publication.  

However, in an earlier press release, dated Jun. 20, 2022, “CN announced today that normal rail operations continue safely as it has implemented its operational contingency plan. The plan allows the Company to maintain a normal level of safe rail operations across Canada and serve its customers for as long as required… While the Company is disappointed with the current situation, CN remains committed to finding a resolution, and it continues to encourage the IBEW to end its strike through an agreement or through binding arbitration.”

In a letter also dated Jun. 20, 2022, Rob Reilly, CN’s Chief Operating Officer, addressed the striking workers: “CN has approached this round of bargaining with the objective of improving wages, benefits, and work rules, and ensuring the safety of our employees… We value you and your important contribution to CN and feel that [our last] offer is reflective of that. While we are disappointed in the current situation, we remain open to resolving the outstanding issues through an agreement or through binding arbitration.” 

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