Sunday, November 29, 2009

When is a strike-breaker not a strike breaker?

Canadian National Railways locomotive engineers went on strike Friday at midnight. Just prior to the strike, I was assigned to the Yardmasters' Spare Board with eight other guys. The spare board usually only has two people on it... and they seldom work more than three shifts a week. I really wanted to be working as a conductor during this strike to get a first-hand look at the quality of "train operators" CN is using to get traffic over the road. I'm disappointed to be sent onto the Yardmasters spare board.

Anyway, I pulled my first shift in the West Tower (the main control tower in Walker Yard in Edmonton). All the regular Terminal Control officers were out running trains so I was working with managers who don't usually do the job of Terminal Superintendent. The yard was an absolute mess due to a derailment the day before. The rails were still being repaired so there was no way in or out of the yard at the west end.

But that's not what I want to write about. It was the spirit of a few of the managers in the tower that struck me. They actually seemed exuberant. The railway was falling apart around them and they were all pumped up. One even said that he loved strikes because they brought everyone together for a common goal. Everyone pitching in to make the railway work. By "everyone" I don't think he meant unionised employess. The implication was that when there was no strike people didn't give their best effort. He mentioned a special sort of comaraderie that develops between everyone pulling together.

It was such a surreal comment to me because I know a large number of the managers operating trains during the strike don't want to be behind the throttle of a train... and certainly not day after day for any extended period of time. They are anxious and nervous about safety and feel incredible stress doing jobs they are not really qualified to do. I'm also well-aware of just how much most unionised employees give every day, working with less than optimal equipment in less than ideal conditions.

While it is possible for CN's managers to keep trains moving over a short period of time, the toll the odd hours and emotional stress will take out of them is not something that can be sustained very long. That's something most unionised employees implicitly recognise and deal with. The excitement of a few managers to take on the task of actually running trains would not last if they had to do it day after day after day. What might remain is a resolve to do the best they could... which is exactly what most engineers and conductors do every day.

Generally, labour unrest disturbs me. In the case of inexperienced office workers running trains, there is--regardless of company claims-- safety and efficiency issues. It is only a matter of time before mistakes are made... mistakes that will cost money... or worse. Not only that, the trust between labour and management takes a long time to rebuild itself... if it ever does. The conflict caused by a strike causes suffering to everyone... one both sides. Sometimes they are necessary... and of course they are within the law. That said, it is a shame that an agreement could not have been reached.

The idea of actually "liking" a strike that pits workers, management and customers against one another... and puts safety into question is not one I understand.

The best anyone can hope for now is that we get through this without serious injury and with everyone maintaining their dignity.

Once it's over, I might get back to Locomotive Engineer training.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Is it too much to ask

Is it too much to ask that my kids keep to a few minimum standards around the house?

Is it too much to ask that they feed the animals THEY wanted?

Is it too much to ask that they try to keep their fighting to a minimum when I'm sleeping... after working all night?

Is it too much to ask for them to do their homework?

Is it too much to expect they speak to their mother and me in a reasonably respectful manner?

When do I get my life back?

I promise... I promise... when they have their own places, they can sit on the sofa as long as they want and I won't care a hoot. They can spend three consecutive hours in front of the computer and I won't say a word. They can join any club, team or group and cruise through it at their leisure and I won't raise an eyebrow.

... and I will respect their rules in their homes. I promise... I promise... I promise.... But for now, this is the house my wife and I bought.

Is it too much to expect that our rules might govern?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

H1N1 Confusion

Last week, Battle-River Wainwright MLA Doug Griffiths and I had a bit of a spat on his Facebook page. On that page, Mr. Griffiths was lamenting the fact that the H1N1 vaccinations were not going smoothly, and much of the fallout was being shouldered unfairly (he thought) by the provincial government.

When I wrote that I felt some of the criticism was fairly placed on his government, he responded he was surprised how uninformed I was, and that I was guilty of politicising the whole situation for personal gain (I ran against him as a Green candidate in 2008).

Firstly, I want to make it very clear that I am not blaming MLA Doug Griffiths for the mass confusion over the vaccinations for H1N1. I know he works hard for the people in his constituency and his integrity as an MLA is not something I question. Yet, after having taken the day off to have my own children receive the vaccination (one of whom is in the high risk category) and being turned away when the clinic ran out of vaccine, I was responding as a worried dad. I still maintain the perplexing messaging about H1N1 vaccinations has confused many of us, and that some responsibility rests on decisions made by the government... of which Mr. Griffiths is a member.

Witness the comments made on Friday by Alberta's Health Minister Ron Liepert to the Calgary Herald. He criticised the media for the anger he faced from the many Albertans forced to stand for hours to get their flu shot. "I don't think it's too much of an extension to say I'm disturbed by the media coverage...."
He continued: "We launched this program asking that the first week would be for those who were most susceptible and at high risk. We also launched by encouraging all Albertans to get vaccinated because all of the indicators we had was that far too many people were going to say this, too, will pass and I don't need to get vaccinated."

Huh? Which is it, Mr. Liepert?

I will concede that I became very concerned about the well-being of my family after the news broke on Tuesday that Evan Frustaglio, the healthy 13-year-old hockey player from Ontario died of H1N1.

Even as recently as last Wednesday, Premier Ed Stelmach said, "We're the province that is offering flu vaccines for every Albertan, not just to the high-risk groups." On Thursday, Mr. Stelmach said, "We're not asking only those high-risk groups to get the vaccine first. It's open to all."

With our own premier making such statements, it seems I am guilty of nothing more than actually believing what my government is telling me. My comments were not made from political opportunism, but rather from a feeling that there has been a confused messaging around the vaccinations and that a clearer plan could have been created to ensure the supplies of the vaccine matched the demand as those supplies came on stream.

In conclusion, I certainly concede that there are many factors to the current furor that were beyond the control of the government. Yet as an Alberta parent who simply wants to act in the best interest of my children, I am confused about why a more effective plan was not in place... especially considering the length of time we have known about this strain of influenza and why there has been so much confusion surrounding the plan that WAS allegedly in place.

I will take my fair share of responsibility for perhaps worrying too much about my own family and not about the larger picture, but I think it is also fair for the Government of Alberta to shoulder some of that responsibility... and for Doug Griffiths too, even though I recognise he is not in any way personally responsible.