Happy Holidays indeed for CN Boss!
January 4, 2005
Years ago, when Canada still had a "national railway," the great engines that drove this country's economy used to pretty much shutdown with the
holidays, at least the Christian ones. And so, on Christmas Day, workers could count on a day off from their demanding and dangerous jobs to enjoy a
meal with family and friends. Privatization, however, has quietly swept away those quaint notions.
Today, the CN, which this year scored the much-sought-after purchase of BC Rail, now runs full loads of freight along its steel highways right through the
holidays. Top executives, no doubt, slip away to their gated suburban homes, or off to a get-away beach condo for a "much deserved" break, while their
more lowly employees keep watch of both switch signals and the hallowed stock value and bottom line.
This, of course, is the essence of the right-wing fuss about "family values:" it's all a matter of whose families you value. The stresses and strains of
working through the holidays, though, are but one aspect of the privatization of the railways and other public assets. An empty seat at the holiday dinner
table is only one of many symptoms that reveal the new relationship of Labour and Capital on the country?s rails. The grinding, subtle and ?inevitable?
process of de-nationalization goes on all year round. And it deserves much closer examination.
The BC Rail deal of Gordon Campbell?s government has already been muddied by scandal, with charges including bribery related to its sale filed against
two top Liberal staffers.
While the charges against Robert Virk and David Basi, prominent aides to then Transportation Minister Judith Reid and the conveniently departed Finance
Minister Gary Collins, respectively, have received remarkably muted coverage, buried as they were beneath the all-important Todd Bertuzzi case.
There has been even less written about the company that has benefited the most from the sale of BC Rail: CN. And though of course it would be libellous
to describe legal partisan donations as bribes, CN has contributed tens of thousands to the B.C. Liberals over the past four years.
Formerly the Canadian National Railway, the corporation was privatized in 1995, and is today run by CEO Hunter E. Harrison, a Chicago-based railway
A sprawling city on the shores of Lake Michigan and situated at the center of North American transportation and shipping operations, Chicago has a long
history in the railway business.
The notorious George Pullman revolutionized the industry from there with the introduction of his luxury "sleeping car" in the 19th century. Pullman named a
company town just south of Chicago after himself, and integrated the "utopian" experiment into his empire of exploitation exorbitant rents were deducted
from pay cheques; foodstuffs and other essential goods were marked up; wages were slashed, especially during the 1890s recession. When the
business baron died in 1897, his family made sure that his body was placed in a special tomb, protected from any chance of posthumous feedback from
his workforce: His eight foot deep pit came complete with steel-reinforced walls and floors, covered over with steel rails, more concrete, and asphalt.
Harrison, for his part, took command as CEO of CN Rail on January 1, 2003, after first joining the company in 1998. Replacing the outgoing Paul Tellier ?
who jumped on the Bombardier bandwagon at an inopportune time, and has just been fired ? Harrison has done very well for himself indeed.
The CN Chief Executive might not even mind a comparison with Pullman, and it's unlikely he cares much about what his employees think of his "reforms" at
the CN; American managers have been said to refer to their Canadian workers as "snow niggers" or "overpaid Mexicans."
And speaking of overpaid, Harrison has certainly done well for himself since joining the CN in 1998. In 2000, while still the lowly No.2 man as the company
Chief Operating Officer, Canadian Business reported that the "tough as nails" executive received $891,120 in base salary, plus "a few perks" and a cool
$10 million performance bonus (December 10, 2001).
In a comprehensive report on CEOs "raking it in," The Globe & Mail reported that Hunter Harrison has also been rewarded with shares in the company,
holding $33.2 million in CN stock options (April 30, 2004).
The CEO has been rewarded heartily for shedding costs (employees) and raising the company?s stock price. Harrison has driven a hard line in
negotiations with the CN's workers, represented by the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) and the United Transportation Union (UTU), as well as the
Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (BLE).
Other measures, too, have been employed to "discipline" the workforce. Most recently, the CAW has filed charges against the company for threatening the
union representative who blew the whistle on hidden surveillance cameras at the Transcona Wheel Shop in Winnipeg. The UTU, for its part, has been
busy fighting wrongful dismissal cases through arbitration and by appealing to the Canada Industrial Relations Board.
So while life has gotten harder for CN workers, as symbolized by the increased holiday workload, executive compensation has skyrocketed - a familiar
formula that accompanies privatization and neo-liberal economic and political regimes. The company, perhaps wary of potential griping from its ungrateful
employees, addressed the issue of working through the holidays in a recent newsletter by adding a little caveat to their seasons greetings:
I extend to you and your family my best wishes for this festive season. Ours is a demanding profession, and our families have to accept that our duties
make it impossible to be present at some family occasions - (Message from Peter Marshall - CN Western Canada Region Newsletter, December 2004)
One can speculate pretty safely that Hunter Harrison's many duties did not keep him away from a big holiday feast with family and friends. After all, the
CN's CEO had a lot to celebrate this year, and a lot of reasons for which to send a really nice Christmas card to B.C. premier Gordon Campbell.
Source: Derrick O'Keefe - Word Up! Magazine