Rail Workers Blame Woes on Earlier Cuts

May 29, 2007: by Brent Jang from Transportaion Reporter: When Shayne Brighton started his job 28 years ago at Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd., he didn't have to worry about toiling nights and weekends - shifts he has often worked in the past three years.

Mr. Brighton, 49, makes $24.24 an hour as a welder-fabricator at CPR. He went on strike with his 3,200 Teamsters union co-workers on May 16.

"CP Rail isn't offering us much in return for our hard work," Mr. Brighton said from Revelstoke, B.C.

He said his quality of life has been eroded by work demands that increasingly cut into what used to be his family time.

While he can make nearly $60,000 a year, including overtime, he said he and his colleagues are underpaid, given the growing work load for employees remaining after many years of layoffs.

CPR and Canadian National Railway Co. are running into union resistance to management attempts to broaden duties for employees, who would rather reap bigger rewards from the industry's prosperity.

After last year's record profit of $2.1-billion at CN and $796-million at CPR, employees complain that their ranks have been depleted by job cuts even as the rail sector thrives.

From 1994 to 2005, railway industry employment across Canada fell 35 per cent to about 35,400 people, or a loss of 19,000 jobs.

Average wages during the period rose 46 per cent to $72,000 a worker in 2005, says the Railway Association of Canada. The wage hikes average 3.5 per cent annually, outpacing the yearly inflation rate of 2 per cent.

The downward trend in jobs has continued, dipping below 35,000 positions last year, while the railways try to keep a lid on further wage increases.

Amid wage restraints and ongoing job cuts, 2007 has become the year of labour unrest in Canada's efficiency minded railway industry. A 15-day strike hit CN in February, and the CPR strike enters its 13th day today.

The CPR strike by track maintenance workers came just three months after 2,800 conductors and yard staff at CN staged their strike, upset at what they view as onerous demands to meet CN's quest to be a "precision railroad."

CPR has a different name for its efficiency drive, dubbing it an "execution excellence" campaign.

The corporate slogans refer to management's focus on forming daily schedules for rail cars, setting targets for departures and arrivals.

Other goals include reducing "terminal dwell time," where workers get trains ready to roll; part of the mission is to transport more freight in speedier fashion.

In the late 1990s, Montreal-based CN began emphasizing the importance of getting trains to leave at scheduled times.

CN has become the leader in the shift away from the common industry practice of a decade ago, when locomotives were forced to wait for enough goods to show up before moving on the rails.

Following CN's lead, Calgary-based CPR and other North American railways have embraced the concept of departing at specified times, even with light loads.

David Scott, 54, a CPR carpenter who makes $24.24 an hour, said wages aren't the only sticking point in the strike against CPR. Pensions, health benefits and work rules (notably management's proposal to expand work districts) are also contentious issues, he said on his cellphone, shortly before reporting for picketing duties in Montreal.

Mr. Scott has worked at CPR for more than 30 years, supporting his wife and their two daughters, now in their early 20s and still living at home.

"CP Rail is making money hand over fist, and they should share with us," he said.

Escalating imports of Asian goods, notably from China and India, and rising commodity exports have created bustling times in the railway sector over the past three years.

As the train business booms, unions are clashing with management's attempts to keep costs under control, said BMO Nesbitt Burns Inc. analyst Randy Cousins.

He said that as baby boomers retire over the next decade, the railways will be able to shave labour costs further through natural attrition.

The industry has become more efficient, taking advantage of improvements in train technology and productivity gains such as growth in handling intermodal goods that are transferred in large containers between trains and ships, said Edward Jones & Co. analyst Daniel Ortwerth.

He said there was bound to be labour resistance to the railway sector's transition to becoming 24/7 operators.

"Change is hard," Mr. Ortwerth said.

Click here to read the story at globeandmail.com
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