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Why are CN rail workers striking and what do they want?

ABOVE: Alberta government calls on feds to resume Parliament to address CN Rail strike

Thousands of workers with Canada’s largest rail network are on strike.

Teamsters Canada Rail Conference (TCRC), the union representing the workers, and Canadian National Railways (CN) failed to reach an agreement on a new contract before a midnight deadline Monday.

The union and the company have been in negotiations for seven months and have been working with federal mediators for the past five.

Talks between the two parties are ongoing in Montreal.

READ MORE: Over 3,000 Canadian National Railway rail workers on strike: union

“We are disappointed that the TCRC has initiated strike action,” a spokesperson for CN Rail told Global News in a statement on Tuesday.

“We will return to the negotiating table today, with the assistance of federal mediators.”

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The CN service disruption involves more than 3,000 workers, including conductors, trainpersons and yard workers. A number of them hit the picket lines Tuesday morning, after the deadline passed, halting freight trains across the country.

CN had been preparing for the strike by winding down certain operations and shuffling managers into operating roles, according to a Globe and Mail report, citing an internal memo. That preparation helps avoid leaving loaded trains in storage or on tracks.

What do workers want?

The two sides cannot agree on a number of concerns. Their focus is on working conditions.

The union says its members are concerned about certain “dangerous practices,” including the requirement that workers operate trains alone, from the outside of the train, “hanging on to moving trains with one hand while operating a remotely controlled locomotive with the other.”

“Railroaders are expected to do this in rain and in freezing temperatures, sometimes for distances of up to about 17 miles,” TCRC spokesperson Christopher Monette said in a statement.

Singh says he doesn’t support calling back House to legislate CN back to work
Singh says he doesn’t support calling back House to legislate CN back to work

Workers are also concerned with fatigue. The union claims CN is “making it harder” for its members to get needed rest by increasing work hours and reducing staffing levels.

“We want more rest,” said Matt Wade, a CN employee who is with TCRC, told Global News Edmonton.

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“We want more ability to take rest, more ownership over our own rest. Not just for safety — because that is very important — but because we also want to improve our quality of life.”

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The Transportation Safety Board identified fatigue as a major safety problem in the industry in its annual report, noting that fatigue was a contributing factor in more than 90 investigations since 1992.

Just last week, CN confirmed that it was cutting jobs across the railway, citing a weakening North American economy that’s chipping away at demand.

Wade said he typically gets a two-hour notice to go to work and a round-trip shift can last as long as 42 hours.

READ MORE: CN Rail confirms layoffs; declines to say how many affected

“That’s longer than the average workweek for any Canadian, and we make three of those usually a week,” he said.

“All we’re asking is to be fit and rested to go to work and have time with our loved ones. It’s as simple as that.”

The TCRC has also taken issue with prescription drug benefits.

According to the union, CN wants to set a lifetime cap on prescription drug coverage. The union says this deal would be “tantamount to denying workers and their families” sufficient treatment for a number of illnesses.

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Approximately 3,200 CN Rail workers prepare to strike
Approximately 3,200 CN Rail workers prepare to strike

Wages are not part of the dispute.

“I want to make it known that it’s not about the wages,” Wade said, adding that spirits are high among members.

“This strike is about the safety of the men and women at Teamster Rail, the conductors here. We work 24/7, 365 days a year — evening, days weekends, all major holidays, weather conditions.

“We dedicate our lives to this company and the company is asking us to even give them more.”

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Global News asked CN Rail for comment about the negotiations and TCRC’s concerns but was directed to their aforementioned statement while negotiations are ongoing.

What’s impacted?

CN Rail celebrates 100 years
CN Rail celebrates 100 years

The work stoppage brings CN’s operations to a halt. CN’s rail network stretches across approximately 20,000 route-miles of track and ships globally through ports on three coasts.

Grain companies, farmers and chemical manufacturers are among the industries that rely on CN. The halting of freight trains will cause headaches for the industries — some of which have already set in.

READ MORE: Grain shippers worried as CN Rail workers strike

CN services approximately half of all grain elevators in Western Canada. The service disruption is fueling worries about sales losses.

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What’s not impacted?

The strike does not affect public transportation in the country’s three biggest cities, including GO Transit and Toronto’s UP Express.

“Just to be clear, the strike does not involve unions that represent any of the employees that work on our buses or trains,” Anne Marie Aikins, senior media spokesperson with Metrolinx, said on Twitter.

“We are hopeful they resolve their issues but we have assurance there will be no impact to GO Transit service.”

Global News Morning Market & Business Report, November 19
Global News Morning Market & Business Report, November 19

VIA Rail Canada is also running as usual.

“VIA is not expecting any impact to VIA operations from the CN strike,” the company wrote on Twitter.

— With files from the Canadian Press