On November 7, 1885 the spike that completed the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway was driven at Craigellachie, BC (located between Revelstoke and Sicamous)…

On November 7, 1885 the spike that completed the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway was driven at Craigellachie, BC (located between Revelstoke and Sicamous). It had taken more than 4 years, 12,000 men, 5,000 horses and 300 dog-sled teams to build the railway. The photograph of the event, one of the iconic images of Canadian history, depicts Donald Smith, the white bearded CP Director, swinging the ceremonial hammer. Others present included surveyor Albert Bowman Rogers, future CP President William Van Horne, the inventor of standard time Sir Sandford Fleming, and the legendary Sam Steele of the Northwest Mounted Police.


The significance of the completion of the CPR cannot be overstated. The far-flung regions of British North America were, for the first time, physically connected making the dream of a nation “from sea to shining sea” a reality. But the construction of the CPR was more than just an act of nation building. It was also an event that gave birth to CP Rail, the corporate giant that, from that day to this, has played a central role not only in the life of the nation but in the lives of the many thousands of workers who, through the years, have been CP employees.

From the moment of its conception, CP Rail was intended to be a profit generating enterprise. True, it played a fundamental role in the creation of the country, but it didn’t do it for free. Far from it. CP is not only one of Canada’s oldest companies, it is also one of its most profitable. Unfortunately, one of the ways that it has been able to be so consistently profitable has been by taking an elitist and tight-fisted approach towards its employees.

Look again at the picture above. We know the names of the CP executives who were present. We know the name of the Northwest Mounted Police Officer who was present. But what about everyone else? We don’t know their names. We know they were CP employees, we know they were the workers who, unlike Donald Smith, actually built the CPR, but we don’t know anything about them. And why not? Because no one at CP Rail bothered to make a record. In the eyes of CP management, these workers simply weren’t important enough to memorialize.

Undoubtedly, it was this attitude that explains why between 1885 and 1900 unions sprang up all over CP. Clerks, carmen, trackmen, bridgemen, switchmen, engineers, conductors all came together to create Unions that, with varying degrees of success, stood up to the corporate giant and demanded that the workers share in the company’s enormous successes.

Looking back now, it’s clear that even though the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were a time when rail workers made great strides forward, it was also a time when a tremendous opportunity was missed. Rail workers had taken the historic step of creating Unions but, unfortunately, they did so strictly along craft lines. The trackmen had their own Union, as did the carmen, the engineers and the conductors. No Union leader, it seems, had the will or the vision to stand before every rail worker and shout out “we must all be one!”

The opportunity was missed and, as a result, the old craft Unions (the BMWE, the Carmen, the BLE, the UTU, etc.) toiled through the twentieth century in almost complete isolation from each other. While it can’t be disputed that significant gains were made during those years, one can only wonder about how much more could have been achieved if the company had not been so easily able to play one Union off against another or search out the weakest Union, cut a deal with it, and then saddle the rest with the newly established “pattern.”

Of course, hindsight is perfect. It’s easy to be critical about the past. It’s far more difficult to deal with the present and the future. But, in this regard, it must be said that we today are fortunate because we live during a time ripe with promise. A new century has dawned and, with it, the opportunity that our predecessors missed so long ago has again presented itself.

As everyone knows, the economy of the world changed in the 1980s and 90s. The IT revolution brought with it globalization and that, in turn, produced corporate restructuring on an unprecedented scale. Corporations became conglomerates, entities that transcended national boundaries. Stripped of both cultural tradition and patriotic sentiment, the corporate pursuit of profit became an end-in-itself, a morally self-referential activity eager to endorse any strategy provided only that it resulted in the production of more profit.

While the corporations have restructured and grown larger and acquired seemingly limitless resources, they steadfastly continue to be willing to go to almost any length to ensure that their Unions do not undergo similar growth. Why? The answer is obvious: the creation of large, united Unions would level the playing field and that’s the last thing that a profit obsessed corporation wants. After all, aren’t workers just so much easier to control when their Unions are small and, even better, at odds with each other?

Imagine, if you will, a meeting room where collective bargaining is about to begin. Only this isn’t your traditional rail collective bargaining meeting. This isn’t a meeting where the company simply walks in and declares “well, this is what the other Unions got, so this is what you’re going to get too.” What, you may ask, is different about this meeting? The answer is that this time, for the first time, there are no other Unions. There is only one Union, the rail Union, the only rail Union, the voice of every single unionized worker at CP. Can you imagine the difference that would make? No more pattern bargaining, no more engineered animosity between union groups, no more pandering to the weakest link, no more condescension or disrespect. Nothing but a level playing field, a meeting between equals, a true partnership working together not only for the good of the company but for the good of every single employee.

Sound like a dream? Well, it is. But it’s a dream that, these days, is easily within reach. All it will take is the commitment and determination of you, the rail worker reading this article. Look again at the old photograph of the last spike. CP Rail was then, as it now, one company, undivided, monolithic. That gave it (and continues to give it) immense power. It’s the reason why, in the photograph, Donald Smith and William Van Horne and Sandford Fleming are remembered but not the men who actually built the railway.

People are right when they say that there’s strength in numbers. But, unfortunately, numbers aren’t the only consideration. There must also be unity and, even more importantly, a shared vision and singularity of purpose. An association or affiliation of Unions may have its uses but it will only ever be as strong as its weakest link. If we, the rail workers of Canada, are ever going to realize our full potential and exercise our full strength, we must all, everyone of us, regardless of job classification or craft affiliation, stand together as brothers and sisters in one Union. No more chinks in the armor, no more division or disunity, no more internal dissent or disagreement that allows the company to exploit us. Imagine, all of rail labour speaking with one voice.  The voice of the membership – the voice of the TEAMSTERS.

The idea is thrilling even as it causes a cold wind to blow through the halls of Gulf Canada Square.

It’s been 125 years since the completion of the CPR. That means a 125 years of company arrogance, 125 years of divide and conquer tactics, 125 years of the divisions within rail labour giving the company free reign to dictate and control the agenda. Isn’t 125 years far more than long enough? The time has come for the company’s free ride to end. In future, corporations will only grow larger, richer and more powerful. If we don’t do the same, if we don’t stand together in unyielding, uncompromising and all-embracing solidarity, it is inevitable that, in the end, we will be overwhelmed.

Let’s not miss the opportunity that was missed by our predecessors more than a century ago. Let’s not, a century from now, be nothing but nameless faces staring blankly out of a photograph from the past. The time has come to stand up and be counted.

One Company. One Union. The Teamsters. The Time is Now.