The Hamilton Spectator
CN can benefit Canada more as a public company
If railways are so strategically vital to the economy that the federal government is encouraged to use “every tool at their disposal” to prevent a strike, then the time has come to renationalize Canadian National.
From 1919 to 1995, CN was publicly owned for the simple reason that a national railway network was so strategically important to the nation’s economy it simply could not be left in the hands of the private sector. Railways are no less vital today, and the climate emergency will only make them that much more valuable.
An important threshold has been crossed when the workers of a given industry or service are considered so essential they are legally prohibited from exercising the essential right to strike. Railroad workers are not normally considered to be as essential as nurses, for example, but the rail industry and its allies habitually insinuate an economic catastrophe would occur should railroad workers ever go on strike.
Governments, both Liberal and Conservative, have demonstrated ample disregard for workers’ rights, either using or threatening backto-work legislation several times in recent years. This situation is evidently untenable: if merely suggesting a strike sends politicians and retail lobbyists into a frenzy, then railroad workers are indeed an essential workforce and railways ought to be a public asset.
In the United States, the self-described “friend of organized labour,” career politician President Joe Biden, used his executive powers to block a planned strike last December that was similarly characterized as having the potential to cause an economic catastrophe. While the media over-focused on the quality of life aspect of the aborted strike, endemic, industrywide dangerous working conditions were largely under-reported. Trains are longer and heavier, with smaller, overworked crews.
Railway profits have soared because corporate bosses have cut workforces to the bone, and have used their influence to gut safety and environmental regulations.
On Feb. 3, a train carrying hazardous materials derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. To ensure the railway could resume operations (and maintain its profitability) as soon as possible, Gov. Mike DeWine allowed Norfolk Southern to burn off the dangerous chemicals carried by the train. The end result was an environmental disaster of unprecedented proportions. DeWine received $29,000 (U.S.) in campaign donations from Norfolk Southern, which is refusing to compensate homeowners for their now worthless properties.
In the blink of an eye, another small part of the U.S. has been made unlivable thanks to the rapacious greed of the corporate class.
The East Palestine disaster should not be Canada’s wake-up call — that happened a decade ago when the downtown of Lac Mégantic, Que., was wiped off the face of the Earth. There has been almost no improvement to rail safety in Canada since.
Renationalizing CN solves these problems. As a corporation serving the public interest, it could be mandated to follow the strictest environmental and safety protocols — potentially setting a new industrywide standard for the entire continent. The same could occur with working conditions, compensation and benefits. A public corporation aims to benefit taxpayers, not shareholders.
CN has done well for its shareholders, but in its privatization it also abandoned thousands of kilometres of railway across Canada (abandoning some provinces entirely) and shed tens of thousands of jobs. It has not enjoyed the best reputation as an employer, but most importantly, it no longer works for Canada. It would certainly be a lot easier (and cheaper) to develop both high-speed and highfrequency passenger rail service throughout Canada if the federal government had access to CN’s expansive railway infrastructure.
CN was better for Canada as a public corporation. In its private form, it has primarily been beneficial to Bill Gates (CN’s largest shareholder). Railways are indeed too critically important to the nation’s economy and too potentially devastating in case of a disaster to be left in the hands of the profitdriven private sector.