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Edmonton, Nov. 19: Canadian National Railway Co. workers picket on the first day of a strike by 3,200 train operators and yard workers.

Jason Franson/The Canadian Press

Who was on strike and why

CN is Canada’s largest freight railway, employing about 24,000 people in Canada and the United States. This strike involved 3,200 train conductors and yard workers represented by the Teamsters Canadian Rail Conference. On Nov. 19, they walked off the job after months of stalled talks with the company. The union announced a tentative deal on Tuesday, and a day later regular train service resumed.

No details were available of what the tentative deal proposes. Workers have to sign off on it, and the results of that ratification could be available within eight weeks, the company says. Concerns listed by the union included:

  • Automation and safety: In 2017, CN launched a $500-million, five-year plan to respond to the threat of driverless trucks by increasing automation and reducing costs. CN said the changes would also make freight transport safer, but workers said it put them at greater risk. The union said employees were required to hang on to moving, remotely controlled trains from the outside to do their work, even in cold and wet weather.
  • Fatigue: The union said CN was making it harder for its diminished work force to rest or take time off. In one news release, the Teamsters published an audio recording of a fatigued conductor on a rest break being directed by a chief rail traffic controller to keep working anyway.
  • Drug coverage: CN wanted to institute a lifetime cap on employees’ prescription drug coverage, which the union said would limit proper treatment to workers with chronic illnesses such as diabetes.

During the strike, some CN managers operated a few trains, but the railway was at only about one-10th of normal capacity.

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Watch: Learn more about CN's role in Canadian commerce with our video primer. The Globe and Mail (staff)


The economic fallout

CN’s trains ship some of Canada’s most vital commodities – fuel, wheat, fertilizer, manufactured goods – and as their trains laid idle, so did the industries that depend on those things. The strike triggered layoffs and created fuel shortages, and could potentially cost Canadian industry billions of dollars.

Farmers: The strike stymied both Prairie farmers hoping to ship their grain and dozens of vessels on the B.C. coast hoping to receive it. In Quebec, farmers couldn’t even prepare their harvests because they dry grain with propane, which CN usually supplies to Eastern Canada. This is the peak season for grain prices, and farmers who already had a tough harvest this year were worried about the survival of their farms.

Quebeckers: In addition to grain drying, Quebeckers also rely on propane for emergency heating in hospitals, seniors residences and schools. The province began rationing its propane use soon after the strike began, but Premier François Legault warned last week supplies would soon run out unless the trains started running again.

Farmers dump bags of corn in front of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Montreal riding office on Nov. 25.

Christinne Muschi/Reuters

The oil patch: The timing of the strike was terrible for Alberta oil producers who, lacking the pipeline capacity to carry their crude to refineries, rely on rail. Market analysts worried oil prices could be affected at a time when the industry already faces government-mandated production caps affecting their bottom line.

Potash mines: Fertilizer producer Nutrien Ltd. planned to shut down production at its potash mine in Rocanville, Sask., starting on Dec. 2.

Ports: Seventy workers at CN’s Autoport shipping terminal in Halifax were told they would be laid off on Nov. 28 unless the strike ended first. Those workers are with Unifor and not part of the Teamsters union on strike.


Did this affect passenger rail too?

No. Via Rail trains ran as usual throughout the strike, as did regional public transit networks like GO Transit in the Toronto area.

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Why Ottawa didn’t intervene

The House of Commons chamber in Ottawa lies empty on Nov. 24.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Under the previous Conservative government, Ottawa settled a 2012 Canadian Pacific strike with back-to-work legislation and was poised to do so again in 2015 until the railway and union reached a deal. But in this case, federal intervention was a more distant and difficult prospect.

For one, the new Parliament elected in October’s election isn’t in session again until Dec. 5. Had it wanted to come back earlier for an emergency session, as Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer and the Alberta government asked, it would have had to go through the full formal process of a Throne Speech. For another, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is entering a minority Parliament where the New Democrats, traditional supporters of organized labour, are a strategically valuable ally in keeping his government afloat. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said he’d be open to recalling Parliament earlier than December, but not if it’s to pass back-to-work legislation.

Thankfully for both leaders, the tentative agreement made such legislation unnecessary. In announcing the deal, Teamsters Canada president Francois Laporte thanked Mr. Trudeau for respecting workers’ right to strike, also singling out Labour Minister Filomena Tassi, Transport Minister Marc Garneau and the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service for helping to make it possible.

On Twitter, Mr. Trudeau and the premiers of Prairie provinces affected by the strike expressed their gratitude for its end:


Compiled by Globe staff

With reports from Eric Atkins, Carrie Tait, Emma Graney, Nicolas Van Praet, Evan Annett and The Canadian Press


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