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.

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