Ottawa, ON — The week-long strike of about 3,200 workers at the Canadian National Railway Co. is set to end after the Teamsters Canada union reached a tentative agreement with the company. The work stoppage had prompted an outcry from the agricultural sector, as well as politicians, demanding Ottawa end the impasse.
Here are five things to know about the freight rail industry in Canada, CN’s role in it, and why the strike was causing such alarm.
1) The industry runs from coast to coast to coast, but also reaches internationally
The rail system in Canada has 41,465 route-kilometres of track, reaching into every province and territory. Canadian National Railway Co., known as CN Rail, owns 52.8 per cent of the track with the next-largest owner being Canadian Pacific with 30.7 per cent. Other railways own the rest. While the rail companies move goods within Canada, rail is also how most of Canada’s products reach overseas markets — they are first carried by train to the nation’s ports.
2) Most everything gets carried by rail
In 2018, the system moved more than 331.7 million tonnes of freight. Coal and cargo in containers were the two largest categories, followed closely by grain. Other large categories include forest products, chemicals, petroleum (other than crude oil) and potash, according to a federal analysis of the sector. Though rail transportation itself only accounts for about 0.5 per cent of Canada’s GDP, history suggests labour disruptions can have a larger effect. In an analysis released last week, Toronto-Dominion Bank pointed out that a nine-day labour disruption at CP Rail in 2012 drove a 6.8 per cent drop in the sector’s GDP that month, an impact Statistics Canada noted in its monthly analysis. The TD Bank review suggested that if the disruption continued, it could have pulled as much as $3.1 billion from the economy.
3) The domino effects of the strike were already being felt
CN estimated that as a result of the strike, it was operating at about 10-per-cent capacity: a small number of managers are qualified to do the striking workers’ jobs, but can only keep a fraction of the trains moving. Quebec and Maritime provinces warned of propane shortages if the strike continued. Grain-growers couldn’t get their goods to international markets. Canada’s largest potash mine announced this week it would temporarily shut down and lay off 550 employees as a result of the strike. Short-term layoffs at CN’s auto terminal in Halifax were also announced. Chemical companies also suggested they were ready to halt production, as they can’t stockpile more than a few days’ worth of product while waiting for the trains to run again.
4) The striking workers asked for improvements in several areas
The workers that went on strike are represented by Teamsters Canada. The employees had been without a contract since July. They had concerns about safety, fatigue, time-off provisions and a lifetime cap on drug-insurance benefits. One example provided by the union of unsafe conditions is that its members sometimes operate moving trains alone from outside locomotives, hanging on with one hand while working a remote control with the other. CN disputes that the company puts workers at risk.
5) The pressure to end it
CN wanted the Teamsters to accept binding arbitration by an independent third-party the two sides would pick together, or by the government. Agriculture groups, and some politicians, wanted the Liberal government to legislate the employees back to work, but the Liberals said they believed the quickest and best resolution would be reached by bargaining. Passing a law to order an end to the strike would have required Parliament to sit again sooner than the Dec. 5 the Liberals planned. On Tuesday morning, the Teamsters announced a tentative agreement with CN and praised the Liberals for staying “calm and focused” on the bargaining process.