A CN grain train like the ones that should be running again as soon as today, only there will be snow on the ground (Photo: Canadian National Railway).

Now that a tentative agreement in the national strike by 3,200 CN yard workers and train crew members has been reached in collective bargaining as God and the Canada Industrial Relations Board both intended, you’d think the Conservative politicians who were screeching for Ottawa to intervene and order the strikers back to work would be embarrassed.

They ought to be, of course. But if you thought they would be, you’d be mistaken. Leastways, they’ll never admit it.

Some of the picketers last week at the CN’s Edmonton rail yards (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Naturally, a few will try to pretend serious damage was done to the Canadian economy by the weeklong strike, and that it’s all Justin Trudeau’s fault for not ordering the members of the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference back to work after a few hours as Stephen Harper would have done.

As our prime minister seemed to appreciate, though, that would have derailed the entire collective bargaining process — as Canadian National Railway’s executives obviously hoped would happen whether or not they ginned up the propane shortage in Quebec that momentarily united Quebec Premier François Legault and his Alberta counterpart Jason Kenney as unlikely allies.

Remember, collective bargaining is not just a legal process. No matter how much the corporate bosses and their political and journalistic toadies hate it — and, boy, do they ever — participating in collective bargaining is a matter of all Canadians’ fundamental right to freedom of association, enshrined in our Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Don’t take my word for it. Just ask the Supreme Court of Canada!

So, thank goodness, the governing Liberals at least choose to respect those rights, and the result seems to be positive.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Collective bargaining offered a more practical solution than legislation. As Marc Garneau, the federal transportation minister, sensibly pointed out at a news conference yesterday: “Had we taken an approach like the previous government of deciding to legislate back to work, we would not have a solution today.”

“As quickly as we would have decided to convene Parliament, with everything that needs to be done to arrive at Royal Assent for a piece of legislation, we still would not have an agreement today,” he explained, sounding patient. “Because of the approach that we took … we do have a solution today, and better still, the two sides sat down and mutually agreed to a solution. And that is always a better approach than to use forced legislation.”

Of course, most of the Conservatives who were screaming about the CN strikers last week will go as quiet as a bed of clams now that it’s obvious the legal strike process worked as such activities are supposed to in labour relations, concentrating the minds of both parties on the compromise necessary to reach a new contract.

In this case, that should have been easy, since the fundamental issue in the strike wasn’t money, but workplace safety. Although, to be truthful, safe workplaces cost money, and it sure sounded as if CN’s bosses would rather kill off a few more workers than pay to keep them safe. Especially so, since they obviously hoped they could use the economic consequences of the strike get the federal government to order the strikers back to work on management’s terms.

Anyway, within a few hours Canada’s Conservatives will be howling about some completely different outrage for which Mr. Trudeau is supposedly responsible. Better to torque up a new crisis while you look for a new leader, I guess, than admit that the last two likely candidates you found, Andrew Scheer and Maxime Bernier, turned out to be a smarmy dweeb who fibbed about his qualifications and a scary xenophobe respectively.

Transportation Minister Marc Garneau (Photo: International Maritime Organization, Creative Commons).

One can feel some sympathy for the farmers caught in the crossfire of the dispute, but with the trains starting to get back to normal last night and this morning, they too can return to their normal complaints, say, blaming Mr. Trudeau for China’s willingness to play hardball with us for arresting one of their executives on Trumped up American charges.

Modern Republicanized Canadian Conservatives have no credibility on labour issues for the simple reason they don’t believe labour relations should be anything more than a master-slave relationship.

Once upon a time there were influential conservatives like prime minister Brian Mulroney, a labour negotiator himself, who both understood the process and appreciated that it had benefits for society. One of the key benefits is the role strong unions play in keeping income inequality from reaching feudal levels and allowing working families to be part of the now-shrinking Canadian middle class.

In other words, some old timey Conservatives understood what’s obvious to the rest of us, that a strong union movement is essential to a strong middle class.

It’s pretty easy to understand why. As Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman has explained, “unions negotiated good wages and benefits for their workers, gains that often ended up being matched even by nonunion employers. They also provided an important counterbalance to the political influence of corporations and the economic elite.”

Alas, following the lead of their Republican brethren south of the 49th Parallel, such Conservatives don’t really exist any more in Canada. At least not in leadership positions in their parties.

Premier Kenney, sad to say, is the very model of the modern Canadian Conservative, dreaming of becoming Canada’s answer to Scott Walker, the union-hating former governor of Wisconsin. I wouldn’t even be surprised to learn he’s praying for the Teamsters not to ratify the deal, so he can resume yelling at Mr. Trudeau about it.

So don’t look for any Conservative to confess they were wrong about the CN rail strike. Admitting error — even when it’s blatantly obvious, as in this case — is just not in their political DNA.

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  1. Earlier this year I was beginning to think Conservatives were getting quite skilled at creating or exploiting political crisis. I suspect it is one of the things Mr. Kenney considers himself fairly adept at. Well the CN thing and how the carbon tax issue went over in the Federal election is causing me to reconsider this. They seem to be losing their touch, or perhaps other political players have become wise to their strategy.

    I suppose it wasn’t the best time for the Conservatives to try go on the offensive like this. Golden boy Kenney has a lot of balls in the air right now and seems to be dropping at least one or two, so he is a bit preoocupied. The Federal Conservatives, with trying to figure out the best way to get rid of Scheer are even more preoccupied.

    If they were a bit more focused, they might have realized this was not something they should have made such an issue politically, but labour disputes seem to be an provoke an almost Pavlovian ideologically reflexive response from many Conservatives and the UCP. They just can’t seem to restrain themselves.

    Towards the end, I think Harper started to realize that maybe someone like Mulrooney wasn’t just full of hot air and had a good perspective on some things like Quebec politics, Canada/US matters and I would also add labour relations. I am not sure the current gang from Regina or wherever has figured this out. They will probably continue to regularly have egg on their face until they do.

  2. One wonders if a quiet word to CN brass that a legislated agreement would include harsh new safety regs/penalties was enough to prompt the corporistas back to the table.

  3. Meanwhile, Alberta becomes the Gilead of every CON hack’s dreams.

    Margret Atwood can’t believe her luck.

  4. 3600 people hold 37000000 hostage.I worked 51 years I support the company that played my salary not the union leaders that don’t I turned down job offers in the past because I would have to join a union. There is no pride being in a union.when union’s come into a company never will they ever use a secret ballot method in voting.
    Unions aren’t necessary in today’s society.

  5. “In other words, some old timey Conservatives understood what’s obvious to the rest of us, that a strong union movement is essential to a strong middle class.”
    It’s not so obvious as you may believe, working people I talk with think unions are a scourge on our society. This is because they are victims of conservative propaganda. They don’t realize that most of the labor laws protecting us were fought for and won by unions.

  6. Brian Mulroney claimed he never crossed a picket line. Today it could be argued that soul buddies Harper and Kenney don’t think picket lines should even exist. Our beloved Doug Ford hasn’t said one way or the other. He’s busy learning French.

  7. The process worked because the Government let it work instead of trying to make political hay out of it. I have no doubt that the Gov’t whispered in both parties ears that they needed to get on to it, ink an agreement, and get the the trains rolling again. Probably a few comments in their respective shell like ears that if they did not get to end of job, and quickly, on an agreement the Government would act and neither of the parties would be happy with the outcome.

    Yes, the Conservatives do look more than a little silly over this. At least Scheer seems to be changing. Cannot recall him saying anything silly abut this over the past week…very unusual given his track record.

  8. I do hope that the work schedules have been cut to allow people to actually have adequate rest (more than just sleep!). I fear that the coming CN layoffs will throw a good sized monkey wrench in all of this. If the Teamster members do get better work schedules, one would think that more people would need to be hired to allow for better work lives, but layoffs would seem to betray that part of the agreement. God I hope I am wrong!

  9. Nope, just distract by endorsing a liquor store on Twitter whilst lugging a case of the hard stuff under one arm, leaving the Twitter hand free. Klassy with a capital K.

  10. I’d like to thank you for the post the other day that pointed out what the Teamsters’ strike with CN was actually all about. I was completely clueless on the matter till then, due to the simply fantastic media coverage which never elaborated on the matter. At all. That’s corporatism, and the CBC was as guilty as the rest. There was a decided anti-union perspective even here in Nova Scotia as NS gypsum mines shut down, the Autoport staff where European cars enter Canada laid off, propane supplies here declined precipitously, and so on.

    Amazing that Garneau may have got something right — finally. Transport Canada denizens usually like to sit around doing nothing much to the frustration of the Canadian Transportation Safety Board (the only Fed institution I have any regard for) who make recommendation for improvements after investigating accidents. Did the Magog disaster accomplish much in the way of safety revisions to the actual operations of railways? The track there was worn out, ties rotted, spikes missing — which is why CPR had flogged it off, and a fourth rate US outfit was granted a licence to run barely operating dilapidated locomotives with a SINGLE operator at speeds at low as 6 mph over the ruins. Third world standards, if that. New stronger rail cars was all I ever saw as a result and those have nothing whatsoever to do with system operations.

    Transport Canada allows pretty much anything, and my experience in the ’90s trying to coordinate safety set-ups on highways for utility work on poles, showed that the feds were about three decades behind our province, but thought themselves perfectly grand and avant garde. Bunch of out-of-date Upper Canadian twits not used to hard work. Could go on for pages on their cavalier attitude to asbestos and PCBs on their own properties to this day. We got rid of all that suff in the 1980s, for crissake! Glyphosate Round-Up is a prohibited herbicide in Halifax Municipality, but CN sprayed it all over Halifax this year anyway because no municipality can tell a federally-regulated company what to do, now can they? An utter rip and cock-a-snoot at citizens. TC governs telephone companies’ operations on work standards, the province the electrical utilities, but all operate on Nova Scotia roadsides which the province runs. Was not impressed, had to educate these pension-lifers first, to much groaning at the inconvenience we put them to. On the environmental front, another local grand Fed seat sitter used to lob verbal missiles and leave verbal harangue vocemails on our efforts, without once deigning to a meeting where he might learn what was actually going on – harper stopped all the advances and rescinded newer rules on waterways and their banks anyway, the idiot. We were better off on environmental assessments and standards in 1995 than we are now.

    CN used to be a public utility before being privatized in 1995 by the Liberals in the neoliberal rush to make the rich richer, like Billy Gates who has a vast holding in CN. Still, with decent regulations, the railways could be safely run, but what was the chance of that happening when the feds themselves were incompetent when they ran the system? Below zero is the answer. Much like the way Canada Post isn’t run for the convenience of its dual customer/owners, but is off on a separate neoliberal jag. Makes you wonder how well the feds run that dilapidated existing Trans Mountain pipeline. By remote control from a seat-sitter in Ottawa in all likelihood.

    Then Garneau and his airline passenger bill of rights was/is a dud. He was adamant that they would be best in the world for passengers, but a five minute look at he result showed it was NOT EVEN CLOSE to the EU’s. I feared for the man’s reading ability, or whether he just plain “mis-spoke from space” on many occasions. But then realized it was really written for Air Canada and Westjet’s convenience and was just a show of minor bravado in an attempt to impress the plebs. Now we can all go back to dozing and enjoy inferior safeguards and rights while being told the opposite is true. Let’s not even mention the cracks in 737 NG aircraft wing carrier structures called saddles (that’s the pre 737 Max model which Westjet runs).

    Freeland, back from endorsing racist new autocratic governments in Latin America on the basis of claiming rigged elections for no reason whatsoever but her say-so – these dicatators installed against the will of the indigenous majority – is now back trilling across the West. No wonder she and Kenney hit it off. Canada’s best neocon and best neoliberal will see eye-to-eye. If I were First Nations, I’d watch my back on the pipeline scene and expropriation of unceded territory over which dilbit can gurgle in ever increasing volumes even as Alberta oil sector employment decreases – Kenney or Notley never explain that disjointed anomaly, do they? Beyond their political pay grade, I guess.

    Yup, felt that today was a good day to dump on incompetent feds. So thank goodness that the CN rail strike by some miracle seems to have been ended by mutual agreement between company and union. Will the Liberals finally start to govern for Canadians as a whole, or is this instance just a flash in the pan? Stay tuned.

  11. The correlation is virtually absolute: as the power of organized labour shrank, so the power of the neo-right grew.

    Yet, after nearly four decades the neo-right itself has at last tumbled off the pyramid atop which working-class rights that underpin social health had been sacrificed to the ruthless gods of neoliberal globalization, bouncing in its grotesque flayed skin mantle of once-powerful Tory conservatism, its first victim upon the gruesome altar, down the steep, rocky steps past reddish-black blood gutters and sated gargoyles of chiseled stone, reposing in the skeletal pyre of approaching self-imposed criticality at the base below.

    And after discrediting free collective bargaining for decent wages and safe working conditions, the complicity of crony-market solutions, fiscal irresponsibility, monetary deceptions, and economic perfidy bloats against the skin-thin vellum of conservative parchment, revealing a festering sack of naked greed slowly rending, leaking, puddling, its tall, pointed black hat run aground in its own shallowness—is now itself the discredited one: in forty years the global ecosystem has been ever more poisoned, intoxicated, and staggered while across the canyon from the palaces of obscene riches the sprawling mass of people suffers chronic sickness and impoverishment. There was no “trickle-down”.

    Thus, after decades of ‘zero-zero-zero-and-zero over five-six-seven-even-ten-years’, after ordinary housing has become increasingly unaffordable, medicines are forgone to pay for food and heat, and debt has so deepened as to float hardhats on a vast sea like so many gyres of plastic refuse—and this is for citizens who actually work five and more days a week until 65 years-of-age and older, to say nothing of minors, seniors, the infirm and under-employed—the Rubicon flowing between these contrasting worlds of scarcity and plenty is being recrossed by organized labour, double-digit pay increases and striking to get them are returning.

    As sure as everybody knows withdrawal of labour services is still the only effective way to get fair wages and safe workplaces when employers refuse to bargain, it’s still true and, after last forty years, everybody should know by now that union-negotiated contracts set the standard to which nonunion workers aspire—and achieve in large measure—spreading the wealth broadly for the benefit of all society. Not “trickle”, not “down”, but outwards, sufficiently so the less fortunate are cared for, workers stay safe and healthy, and the more fortunate may justify becoming so by contributing real skill and innovation to sustain a fair and clean environment.

    I suppose it’s natural, if not pathetic cowardice, that thoroughly discredited neo-rightists still try to defend their prescription for prosperity—the one that made everything way worse, not better—and circle their wagons and claim besieged victimhood while the amphitheatre of today’s threatened, frustrated and agitated society listens in surround-sound. But in the meantime, labour unions are moving forward again, undeterred and undistracted, the verdict having been accepted by everybody except the beset neo-right, one of history’s and nature’s greatest failures. That means we’d be happy to just move on—so long’s the charlatan Tory imposters don’t try to hang on to our afterburners, like the movie Alien, by it’s fingernail.

  12. There are no true conservatives in the so called Conservative Party. Harper, Manning and their extreme religious right friends kicked them out from the Progressive Conservative Party to form the extreme religious right party they call Conservative but in reality they are the Social Credit Party.

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