TORONTO — A strike threat hangs over Canada's national passenger rail service. By next week, thousands of people from Montreal to Vancouver, B.C. could be left without transportation.
Government subsidies to the money-losing enterprise are shrinking, pushing management to demand cuts in employee pay. But rail workers, who enjoy one of the best wage and benefits packages in Canada, aren't budging.
An outside conciliator has been holding hearings on bringing the two sides together and was scheduled to hand in a report to the federal government Jan. 31. But both sides are talking tough.
``[The report] starts the clock ticking on the seven-day legal requirement before there can be a strike or lockout,'' says Buzz Hargrove, president of the Canadian Auto Workers Union (CAW), which represents 20,000 train-maintenance workers.
At the Montreal headquarters of Via Rail, as the government-owned passenger train service is called, officials are also expecting a confrontation. ``We'll be in a strike or lockout position by Feb. 7,'' says Paul Raynor, a spokesman for the railways. ``We've made progress with the conductors' union but not the CAW.''
Via Rail operates across Canada. It was created when the nation's two largest railroads, Canadian Pacific and the state-owned Canadian National got out of the passenger-train business.
But high labor costs, says Via Rail management, are sinking the enterprise. This year, it's receiving a $321 million (Canadian: US$226 million) subsidy from Ottawa. But politicians keep cutting funding, and the number of towns served is shrinking.
When Via Rail does lay off workers, it still has to pay their salaries, sometimes until they reach retirement age. At Via Rail, wages account for 46 percent of operating costs. At the similarly beleaguered United States passenger railway service, Amtrak, wages make up 52 percent of operating costs. Still, the Canadian government wants to reduce labor costs; the unions say no.
``The positions are certainly hardened,'' Mr. Hargrove says. The government and railway management are ``blaming the workers for the problems in the railway industry.'' Hargove says train workers ``accepted lower standards of living [in exchange] for guaranteed lifetime employment.''
Via Rail says it costs too much to pay a $50,000 (US$35,300) salary plus overtime for people pushing sandwich carts down train aisles and up to $75,000 for conductors. The median income of Canadian workers is $18,600.
Via Rail also says job security is too costly. If an employee with eight years or more on the job gets laid off because of ``restructuring or new technology,'' he or she is sent home to collect his or her pay - all of it - until age 65 and then can collect a pension.
`There were 550 people laid off in 1990; some of them accepted buyouts,'' says Paul Raynor, spokesman for Via Rail. ``But there are still about 120 of them sitting at home collecting full paychecks.'' So when politicians seek cuts in train service, little money is saved.
Engineers get paid by how many miles they drive the train. They get one day's pay for every 100 miles the train travels. Conductors are paid one day for 150 miles. Many Via Rail employees work 12-day months. Via's pay structure was originally made for steam engines.
Union work rules often require several skilled workers to do a job one person could do, Via Rail says. ``Eighty percent of the work that is performed is routine and could easily be performed by a tradesperson for any of the six crafts,'' Via Rail said in a statement. ``Attempts to change the craft rules have not been successful.''
The union says it is not that inflexible. ``With any of these horror cases they keep bringing up, if they have a legitimate case the union is prepared to make the necessary change,'' Hargrove says.