The Current

Tentative CN Rail deal 'will bring back respect for our workers', says Teamsters Canada president

A tentative deal looks set to end a week-long strike of CN Rail workers. Teamsters Canada President François Laporte says the deal ensures safer working conditions, but there is still discussion to be had about improving conditions further.

Ministers played role in facilitating discussion between CN Rail and union, says François Laporte

CN Rail workers protested outside the company's Montreal headquarters early Tuesday, before the deal was announced. (Alexandre Letendre/Radio-Canada)

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A tentative deal has been reached to bring CN Rail staff back to work, but François Laporte, president of Teamsters Canada, said further discussion is needed on the conditions that led them to strike in the first place.

More than 3,000 CN Rail workers are set to go back to work after a week-long strike that disrupted crop shipments and led to a propane shortage. The union said the strike was related to staff being asked to work long hours, which they said led to fatigue and compromised safety. 

CN rejected the union's claim that the strike concerned workplace health and safety, suggesting instead that it revolved around worker compensation. In a statement Tuesday, the company thanked customers for their patience during the strike.

Laporte sat down with The Current's Laura Lynch to discuss the deal, and what it means for the workers in his union.

Here is part of their conversation.

You've got a deal. How are you feeling?

Well, we are feeling much better today because we were able to reach an agreement that is going to be ... a good agreement for our members. It will bring back respect for our workers. And more importantly, we will have language that ensures the health and safety of our members in a workplace. That was our priority.

The issues for your workers were long hours, fatigue and dangerous working conditions. What is in the deal that addresses that?

Well, I'd like to keep the details of the agreement for our members. This agreement has to be ratified by our members. And I will let our local chairman provide that information to our members.

But I'd like to emphasize on the fact that since the beginning, we have said that the financial, the monetary was not the principal point of this conflict. We were looking for language that would ensure safety for our members.

The fatigue is a problem in the industry. Yesterday you heard the recording and we want to make sure that [when] our people show up to work they are properly [rested] and they can work in a very safe environment.

What recording are you referring to?

Well, yesterday we released a recording about a member who was requested to move a train, even though that member reported that he was not fit to do that job.

Our point is this is a situation that our members are facing on a regular basis and we wanted to stop that. We wanted to have some respect. And more importantly, we wanted to have our members to be able, if they are fatigued, we want them to be able to report that they are fatigued and they cannot perform their duty — without being disciplined.

Workers said the strike was over health and safety concerns. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Mr. Laporte, how did the tentative deal come together? I mean, we've been speaking with farmers and others who weren't feeling very hopeful even as of this morning. What changed?

Well, what changed I guess is the … attitude of both parties.

Up to last week, both parties were sitting on their position and the strike happened. I would commend the implication or the involvement of Transport Minister [Marc] Garneau and Labour Minister [Filomena] Tassi, they have done a tremendous job as well as mediation service.

These people contribute to this agreement and they brought both party together. And that was really, you know, very helpful to make this tentative agreement.

But the ministers did not intervene directly, did they?

Well, they intervened in a sense that he [Garneau] was in communication with us, the unions, and he was also in communication with the employer.

I cannot speak about the details of the conversation. But he was on top of the situation. He was aware of what was going on. And it's been very helpful to reach that agreement.

It sounds like he was almost playing conciliator.

Well, he was a conciliator. I think that he played his role as transport minister, and Minister Tassi did the same as labour minister. So, you know, this is a complicated situation. And that strike had a tremendous effect, or consequences on everybody.

Our members are carrying all kinds of goods: propane, woods, containers from port, potash. So the consequences of that conflict were tremendous. And it's important that all the players, you know, get involved and facilitate the discussion to reach that agreement.

Farmers dumped corn outside Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's constituency office in Montreal Monday, to protest a propane shortage caused by the strike. (Jaela Bernstien/CBC)

Your union is saying normal operations will resume tomorrow morning. How long do you think it will take to have everything back on track, so to speak?

Well, that question should be addressed to Canadian National. But our members are ready to go back to work tomorrow morning, 6 a.m., and we'll be there and we will deliver the goods. And we go back to what we do normally, do our jobs and deliver the goods for Canadians.

And how would you describe the relations between the union and CN now?

We're going to wait couple of weeks, couple of months, and we will let the dust come down a little bit. I guess we will have to have a serious discussion about, well, what happened?

We have to sit together and look at what happened, why it happened, and what can be done to improve the dialogue and improve the working conditions of everybody, of our members. 

Written by Padraig Moran, with files from CBC News. Produced by Karin Marley. Q&A edited for length and clarity.


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