Ask any railroader in town their opinion on Hunter Harrison and you’ll almost certainly hear a string of expletives surrounding his name.
Dubbed the “turnaround ace” in a recent Globe and Mail feature, the CP Rail CEO has been leaving his mark on the railway since taking over from Fred Green two years ago.
He’s done wonders for shareholder value, laying off thousands of staff, moving the company’s headquarters from downtown Calgary to an industrial railyard in the southeast corner of the city. He’s taken what was considered North America’s poorest performing railway and turned it around — share prices have sky rocketed, but at the expense of workers and employee relations.
When Harrison was appointed and company-wide layoffs were announced, I spoke to many conductors and engineers in town. Collectively known as the running trades, they didn’t seem too concerned about the new regime. “Somebody still has to drive the trains,” is a comment I heard frequently.
Recent changes to working conditions have changed their tune. CP Rail has eliminated local provisions that allowed for 30 hours rest instead of the usual 24 hours, and the three working pools have been grouped into one, causing much bigger uncertainty about where and when they will be going to work.
“All of these things, you just add them all up, and it puts them more off kilter all the time, and it has an effect on fatigue and how they work, planning their own personal life as well,” said Dave Able, the Teamsters general chairman for locomotive engineers. “It has a huge effect on lifestyle as well.”
I spoke to Able after local union representatives declined to speak to us — a departure from the past when they used to speak freely about labour issues.
Able, who is based in Calgary and nearing retirement, has been designated the spokesperson for the railroaders. He explained, on the record, what the impact of the changes are and why they’re an issue for the running trades.
Since the early 1980’s, running trades in Revelstoke have been allowed 30 hours rest between shifts. The national collective bargaining agreement allowed for 24 hours, but local rules allotted 30. The extra six hours meant that if you were on an overnight shift, you had a bit more leeway to book time off to get off that shift and onto a more normal routine.
The 30 hour rest provision gave running trades’ workers more chances to regulate their schedules, said Able.
“When they had 30 hours rest, you would get in at 10 p.m. and you could book 30 hours rest until 4 a.m.” he said. “Now, if you book 24, you’re into a rut of always working nights if you come in.”
The super pool
The other issue is the new super pool. Traditionally, Revelstoke has had three pools of engineers and conductors. The Shuswap pool would handle trains to and from Kamloops. The mountain pool would handle trains to and from Field. The third was the coal pool to Golden.
The mountain run is where conductors and engineers would start out. With it’s steep grades and long tunnels, it is a more challenging section of track and the running trades people would try to get out of the mountain and on the Kamloops run. It’s regarded as an easier drive and there’s more to do in Kamloops than in Field or Golden once you get there and are waiting for a train to get back home.
The pools gave workers more certainty with their schedules. They could get off a shift, check the board and have a pretty good idea of when they would be back on a train, depending on how much time they booked off.
“It gave them the opportunity to choose which one they wanted to work for their own lifestyle,” said Able.
Earlier this year, all three pools were combined into one super pool. No longer can senior engineers choose which route they want to be on.
It’s also much harder to determine when you’ll be called to drive again. Instead of a list of 25 trains to look at, there’s a list of 50 trains, and more conductors and engineers on the board ahead of you. Predicting when the call will come in to go to work is much harder.
“When you triple the numbers in terms of what you have to look at in terms of variables, it becomes impossible to be able to determine with any kind of certainly what time you’ll be going to work until maybe you’re within an hour of going, and by then it’s too late to get any sleep,” said Able.
The appeal of working for CP Rail is mixed. The long and variable hours are counteracted by the excellent pay, benefits and pension.
Talking to people that work for the running trades, the changes have tilted the balance where many are questioning their future with the company.
The changes have led to numerous resignations — 21 since February 2013 and nine since the super pool was announced, according to Able.
I’ve talked to two people who, after being laid off for a long time, decided not to go back to work when called back because the pay was no longer worth it. CP Rail recently started advertising for a new class of conductors to fill the void.
Union officials are currently protesting the changes to the labour relations board. While they do that, they are also busy with a backlog of other grievances, including a number involving employees that have been fired for a variety of reasons.
“We’re in the grievance process but the system right now is very much clogged. The company, we believe, has intentionally clogged up the system so it will take a long time to get them there,” said Able.
He couldn’t provide exact numbers on how many people were fired in Revelstoke recently, but said his office is handling about five times as many grievances as normal. He believes the goal is to bog down the union in grievances in order to stretch its resources. The company and union are scheduled to begin negotiations on a new contract this year.
“If you’ve spoken with any railroaders around town, they’re more than willing to tell you how upset they are,” said Able. “I don’t understand what was so difficult about the way it was, to be quite honest. We’ve been able to manage it since long before any of us were born, let alone thought about a train.”