Members of the United Transportation Union held an informational picket at Canadian Pacific Railway headquarters in downtown Minneapolis, voicing concerns about what they say are increasingly unsafe working conditions.

Despite a wind chill that pushed temperatures well below zero, the Feb. 6 event drew some 30 railroad workers to the Canadian Pacific Plaza to march and hold signs that read “Railroad safety = Public security.”

UTU State Director Phil Qualy explained how the union has attempted to work with the Canadian Pacific to address safety concerns. In addition, the union has written complaints to the Federal Railroad Administration regarding public and general safety.

Later that day, Governor Mark Dayton announced he will ask the Legislature to look into the issues raised by the union, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported.

“We see a general deterioration in several areas of operation…the margins of safety are being stretched too thin,” said Qualy. In recent months, the railroad has eliminated jobs, creating a heavier workload for those who remain.

“Canadian Pacific was doing just fine – operating well over the last few years,” Qualy said. But after a Pershing Square Capital Management takeover of CP in late 2012 and the appointment of Hunter Harrison as chief executive, workers have seen negative changes.

“We appreciate that Mr. Harrison is trying to gain efficiency in our operations, however, what actually is going on, on the front lines, is a danger not only to our members, but also the public,” said Qualy. “You cannot put profits over safety – you cannot put profits over public security.”

When engineer Stephanie Johnson started working for the Canadian Pacific, she had six months of training. Now, she says, CP is proposing to cut training for new employees by half.

“This job is like going to another country and learning a whole new language – a whole new culture…And they are wanting to push these guys through in 12 weeks. That is a huge safety issue,” said Johnson.

UTU Local 911 President Guy Donnelly expressed his concerns about how workers are expected to remain on-call for long shifts.  “Train crew fatigue is probably the biggest thing with railroad safety…It’s hard to be rested, come to work and work 12 hours when you don’t know physically when you’re going to go to work.”

Donnelly speculated that in order to circumvent laws that require undisturbed time off after six or seven days worked in a row, management will intentionally not work an employee for 24 on-call hours, “resetting” their consecutive days worked and effectively postponing their undisturbed time with family and friends. This is also time when railway workers get their restorative rest – keeping them alert and safe on the job, he said.

Within the first 30 minutes of the picket, building security asked union members not to walk through the plaza and instead to stay off the property and remain on the sidewalk. This was nothing new for the protesters – some recalling times on the job when they had been refused indoor breaks while enduring dangerously cold temperatures.

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