We need a different kind of back-to-work law

We need to come up with a new approach for dealing with work stoppages like the strike that has slowed product shipping at Canadian National Railway to a trickle.

Under Conservative governments, railway strikes were typically ended quickly with back-to-work legislation, a solution that pleased most farmers. However, if railway companies can count on a quick legislated end to a work stoppage, they don’t really have to bargain in good faith.

With the current strike at CN, the Liberal government has been in no hurry to suggest back-to-work legislation is in the offing. Parliament isn’t set to resume until Dec. 5 and there was never any indication of an earlier recall to deal with the strike despite its dire effect on the Canadian economy.

After MPs resume sitting, so many procedural items need to be dealt with that passing any legislation would only happen many days later, especially due to the likely opposition from the NDP.

The Liberal government is no doubt hoping that CN and its employees reach an agreement soon, negating the need for government intervention. At least, that seems to be the position from newly reappointed Transport Minister Marc Garneau, one of the brighter lights in the Trudeau cabinet.

The usual calls are coming from shippers and farm groups for quick government action, with the most ardent pushing for a legislated solution.

The strike garnered increased national news coverage because of the propane shortage it caused in Ontario and Quebec. Rather than western farmers being seen on the news, it has been farmers in Central Canada worried about getting propane for drying their corn and soybeans.

With steps underway to address many of the propane shortage issues, the national news spotlight will likely focus on other topics, ignoring the damage to the Canadian economy and particularly the economy of Western Canada.

Rail performance has been good this fall. Shipments took some time to ramp up due to the late harvest, but both railway companies have been able to provide the vast majority of hopper cars requested by shippers.

The longer the CN strike continues, the more difficult it will be to recover from lost shipments. As the temperature drops and snow builds up in the mountains, the lack of movement during this relatively good weather could come back to haunt the industry.

Rail freight isn’t an essential service in the same sense as police, medical and fire services. However, the collateral damage from a work stoppage far exceeds the damage the union and the company inflict upon each other.

Why not implement a system of back-to-work legislation that also imposes an economic penalty on both sides?

OK you guys, enough is enough. Workers have to return to their jobs, but until both sides agree to a new contract, CN has to pay a penalty equal to 20 percent of its gross receipts and employees will have 20 percent of their pay garnished. Get products moving again, but you’ll both suffer some economic pain until a new contract is achieved.

We can debate whether 20 percent is the correct number and maybe the penalty should vary depending upon the situation. But this sort of approach ends the damage to the Canadian economy while providing a strong incentive for the company and its unionized employees to reach a deal. The penalty money could be allocated to any number of good causes.

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