Rail strikes reveals problems in need of fixing

Now that the railways are running again, perhaps now is a good time to turn our attention to problems spilling out from the week-long CN strike.

Many of those problems are directly related to the vital nature of CN and CP rail services.

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But maybe now is also a pretty good time to start understanding the source of the problems that caused the strike in the first place. Understanding both would surely go a long ways towards understanding the problems we all share in his country.

It has to begin with everyone in this country understanding how big a problem a rail strike actually is.

As per observations made in this space a week ago, November was not a good time for the 5,650 hopper cars per week to be standing idle. It’s not a particular great crop in quality, but there’s a lot of it and it has to be moved.

As of this month, the weekly grain car allotment is expected to be reduced to 4,150 cars a week and is expected to stay at that level until March.

A tough winter with shipping delays would be devastating, so the focus clearly needs to be finding ways to head off anticipated problems in the moving grain, oil and other products vital to the Western economy.

One thing that would seem to be in order is essential services legislation for the CN/CP duopoly that is our Canadian rail system.

Premier Scott Moe and others were making the case for such measures, arguing that our economy could not afford another minute of a CN shutdown.

The problem, however, is that the long-standing issue of freight costs would not be eased by essential services legislation. It’s not unduly suspicious to think this would, very quickly, become an excuse for the rail companies to up their rates.

Certainly, the issue between CN Rail and the Teamsters Canada involving public safety — conductors and others working excessively long hours to deal with backlogs and car shortages — would require more hiring to deal with such an issue.

That, of course, would mean higher costs passed on to farmers.

Having essential services legislation would take away the employer/union ability to work out a better solution. The same thing can be said for back-to-work legislation that cannot be passed quickly because of the practical delays in recalling the House of Commons.

This begs the question whether it was simply better to have allowed the CN strike play out as it did — by using public and political pressure to force both sides to force an equitable settlement at the bargaining table.

Unfortunately, it does seem to be increasingly difficult to bridge such differences in a world where it’s getting tougher to see the problem from someone else’s perspective — even when that problem is shared.

One gets why many might not have much sympathy for well-paid, unionized rail workers when your own livelihood has so few guarantees.

It’s simply been tough on farmers this year and it creates the kind of mental health stress we don’t talk enough about. Certainly, it’s not something that city people much think about.

And when you add the notion of the trains not running, it only adds to the stress.

But for as easy as it is to be mad at striking workers — and the railways, in general — there is at least one reason to sympathize.

If anyone can relate to the complaints and concerns of those 3,200 teamsters — the stress, hardships, pressure and dangers of long hours in the cab of big machinery — it’s surely farmers.

Maybe we will do better at solving our problems if we recognize that others may share them.

Murray Mandryk has been covering provincial politics for over 22 years.

© Copyright Yorkton This Week


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