Striking Canadian National Railway workers picketed outside Winnipeg's Symington rail yard Tuesday morning, joining the first day of a national strike by more than 3,000 CN employees.
Roughly three dozen striking workers were on the line at the yard's entrance near Lagimodière Boulevard and Maginot Street as of 8 a.m., as a cold morning rain turned to sleet. The strikers said they weren't authorized by their union to give media interviews.
Another picket line is planned for the gate to CN's Winnipeg Intermodal Terminal on Plessis Road, according to Christopher Monette, Teamsters Canada's director of public affairs. The striking workers are letting CN managers and supervisors through the picket lines to operate trains, he said.
"So while the company's total capacity is greatly affected, and they're not operating anywhere near as much, officially, as they normally would be — obviously, they've got 3,000 workers on the street — there are still some trains that are moving now, because there are workers at CN who are not covered by the same (collective agreement)."
Monette said fatigue is a key issue for the striking CN workers.
"And at the bargaining table, CN wants to make it even harder for our members to take time off, and they want to make our members work even longer days," he said.
Another issue is CN's practice of having workers operate locomotives from outside the train via remote control, Monette added.
"CN asks our members to hang onto moving trains with one hand, hold the remote control with the other, and operate these trains for hours a day, through rain and freezing temperatures."
The workers' other major concern is CN's plan for a lifetime cap on prescription drug coverage for workers, said Monette.
"But that cap is so low that it's tantamount to denying some of our members coverage for medication," he said.
Wages aren't a particular concern in the negotiations, according to a Teamsters Canada press release.
Canadian National Railway is "disappointed that the (Teamsters Canada Rail Conference) has initiated strike action," wrote CN spokesperson Jonathan Abecassis in a brief emailed statement Tuesday.
"We will return to the negotiating table today, with the assistance of federal mediators. We have no further comment at this point."
Teamsters spokesperson Monette said the union wants to negotiate a settlement as soon as possible.
"We don't want this strike to go on forever, because our members obviously don't like being on strike if they don't have to be," he said.
"Holiday season's around the corner, and of course we're also very sensitive to concerns from farmers and pretty much everybody who relies on CN's network. That's why we really want to reach a negotiated settlement — but it takes two to tango, and the company, we're really hoping that they're going to change their attitude with regard to the key health and safety issues that we've identified."
Winnipeggers who support the striking workers are welcome to stop by the picket lines and show support, added Monette.
"That applies such an incredible boost in terms of morale, to see members of the public who might not have any connection with the railroad, but who nevertheless go out there out of solidarity with this working-class struggle, to support the people who are on the line right now. That's huge. And if you have some spare change, obviously, buy the guys some Timmie's and Timbits."
Solomon Israel is a full-time reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press and for two years, the lead writer for Free Press cannabis news site, The Leaf News. He continues to provide coverage of the cannabis beat while covering business in the city and province.