Justin Trudeau scored a major political victory with the negotiated end to a damaging Canadian rail strike that will only cement his government’s growing ties with organised labour.
The prime minister’s reluctance to force an end to the strike of about 3,200 conductors and railyard operators at Canadian National Railway Co (CN) won him accolades from the union and industrial relations experts who prefer a hands-off approach. In the face of intense pressure from industry, farmers and provincial premiers, Trudeau’s team insisted on letting negotiations run their course.
It was the latest manifestation of an increasingly pro-labour stand under Trudeau, which is a dramatic departure not only from the previous Conservative administration that regularly ordered picketers back to work, but also from past Liberal governments. And it couldn’t have been easy as the costs to the economy mounted daily.
“This government has been loathe to intervene,” said George Smith, who teaches labour relations at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario and was vice president of industrial relations at Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd from 1992 to 1996. They’ve been “steadfast and consistent in their beliefs that the collective bargaining process should be allowed to work.”
Without a deal, the Liberals faced a lose-lose scenario that would have them either breaking faith with an organised labour movement they actively courted, or watching the economy go into a tailspin. Back-to-work legislation would have forced the government to take an adversarial approach in parliamentary debates. “It would have caused a fissure with labour if they did back-to-work,” Kathleen Monk, a principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group in Ottawa said by phone.
Back-to-work legislation — which would have been inevitable had the strike gone on much longer — would have forced the government to take an adversarial approach in parliamentary debates.
“It would have caused a fissure with labour if they did back-to-work,” Kathleen Monk, a principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group in Ottawa who was a top adviser to Jack Layton, the former leader of the pro-labour New Democratic Party, said by phone .
Unions still have a healthy skepticism of Liberal sincerity, particularly after Trudeau’s government forced postal workers to end rotating strikes just before Christmas last year.
The process of forcing a return to work would have also hijacked the legislative agenda just as Trudeau seeks to reset his government’s narrative after a bruising election, with parliament scheduled to reconvene on December 5. The prime minister, who saw his mandate weakened in the October vote, wants his first order of business to be a tax cut for the middle class.
The Teamsters Canada Rail Conference union and CN Rail announced they had reached an tentative agreemen and normal operations were expected to resume by November 27. The week-long walkout was the first in a decade at Canada’s largest railway and threatened to take a multibillion-dollar bite out of the economy.
“Previous governments routinely violated workers’ right to strike when it came to the rail industry,” union chief François Laporte said in a statement. “This government remained calm and focused on helping parties reach an agreement, and it worked.”Under Trudeau, the Liberals have developed close ties with big unions including an overhaul of the country’s labour code to improve working conditions and a repeal of anti-labour legislation.