Not only railway workers lack bargaining power

Those poor railway unions. As soon as they initiate strike action, the government rushes to introduce back-to-work legislation. 


It’s an affront to the collective bargaining process. Why would a railway negotiate in good faith knowing its employees will be quickly legislated back to work anyway?


If you think the railway workers have it tough, try being a customer of the railway. But more on that in a minute.


If you listen to the media accounts, it’s only this mean-spirited, anti-labour Conservative government that forces unions back to work. Well, try to identify a railway strike in this country that didn’t end with the government taking action. 


Whether Conservative or Liberal, federal governments have shown little patience with railway strikes and the collateral damage to the economy. Railway strikes end with legislation. It’s just a question of how long the trains sit idle.


Railways may not be an essential service, but no responsible government can put up with an extended work disruption. If the NDP ever forms government in this country, how will they deal with such situations? Will they sacrifice the nation’s economy over the unassailable right to collective bargaining?


Yes, back-to-work legislation infringes on union bargaining power, but binding arbitration means the workers should be treated fairly.


Amazingly, even when the government indicated its commitment to a legislated end to the work disruption, the opposition parties and the union still had to be dragged kicking and screaming through the process. 


Once the legislation is a foregone conclusion, collective bargaining ends. If opposition parties want to express their disapproval, that’s fair game. But why not expedite the process? Who benefits by dragging out the inevitable? 


Specifically, why did Liberals in the Senate insist on calling witnesses and spending more time on a bill that had already been fast-tracked through the House of Commons? 


As for the union workers, why not go back to work? No meaningful bargaining takes place with the bill before legislators. Getting back on the job voluntarily ahead of the legislation would minimize the impact on the economy and win them a lot of respect.


While the union received a lot of sympathy, it’s shippers who pay for increased wage and pension benefits and it’s shippers who are hurt by the work disruption. 


As farmers, what can we do about the 9.5 percent increase that’s coming on grain freight rates in the new crop year? Where is our bargaining power?


And how much power do grain shippers have when railway service sucks? The railways have refused to enter into meaningful rail service agreements. Clearly, the railways will negotiate such agreements only if forced to the table by government legislation. Hopefully that will come this fall. 


If you are a railway worker and you really believe that your wages and benefits are lagging behind other sectors, you can take a job somewhere else. Of course, most won’t leave because they do quite well as railway employees. 


As farmers, what do we do if we want to avoid high freight rates and/or poor rail service? The options are limited. The two main railways don’t compete in any meaningful way and other modes of transportation aren’t viable for most of the markets we serve. 


Despite a grain freight rate cap, efficiency gains are largely being captured by the railways rather than being passed along to customers. Railway workers deserve to be treated fairly, but so do railway customers.

Kevin Hursh is an agricultural journalist, consultant and farmer. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]