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Via Worker on why he stands with Wet’suwet’en

Michelle Robidoux

March 9, 2020

Socialist Worker spoke with Zach Wells, a Via rail worker based in Halifax about why he and other union members should stand in solidarity with Indigenous land defenders.

As a union member and activist working on the railroad, you have been outspoken in defense of Indigenous peoples’ fight for justice, providing a different perspective on the current struggle by Wet’suwet’en people than the one pushed in mainstream media. What led you to speak out publicly and what has been the reaction to your stance?

ZW: I had posted some links to stories, but hadn't really intended to speak up about the situation—but when I saw posts popping up on my social media feed blaming CN's decision to shut down their entire network on solidarity blockades and suggesting that the tactics being employed by First Nations activists were inappropriate, it got my dander up. For one thing, something that railroad insiders know well, but which might not be so apparent to the average person, is that this move was typical of the sort of tactic CN will employ to get its way. People were talking about how unfair it was that the country was being “held hostage” by a small group of people, without realizing that the small group of people actually squeezing the nation were CN executives.

For another thing, as a labour activist in a leadership role in my Local (Unifor 4005), I felt that I needed to show and tell my members—and anyone else who cared to listen—that we can't be narrowly focused on our own short-term interests in any conflict between marginalized people or workers on one side and corporations and neoliberal governments on the other. I wanted to make clear that solidarity can't begin and end with our coworkers. The labour movement is weakened enormously if it doesn't extend solidarity to broader social justice issues. That we have more common cause with First Nations than we do with the Liberal Party of Canada, CN Rail and Coastal Gas.

The reaction to my posts floored me. I routinely spout off about political topics on Facebook, but this was the first time something I'd written went viral to this extent. My original post (from February 13) expressing solidarity with land and water protectors has been shared 359 times; the postscript to it, relating to CN's strong-arm tactics, has been shared an additional 47 times. There's nothing intrinsically remarkable about what I wrote; I think the traction it got is a factor of non-aboriginal workers not often enough being on-side with First Nations activism. An awful lot of the likes and shares came from First Nations folks, who have been hearing way too much about how inconvenient the blockades were (to the point of perfect absurdity when Andrew Scheer said they had to check their privilege!) and not nearly enough about how goddamn awful their treatment—grand larceny, systematic abduction, genocide—has been ever since contact.

What are other workers on the rail saying? Even a minority of workers in support is important in challenging what mainstream media and employers are saying.

ZW: Even a high-ranking manager at my place of employment framed the rail shutdown as “CN failing to deliver on its contractual obligations” to Via. She said at the time that she wouldn't make such a statement publicly, but she knew I was in the room when she said it, so it's fair game! That wasn't so much a gesture of support as a tacit acknowledgement of who is actually responsible for the disruptions to travel and commerce caused by CN's shutdown.

As for the rank and file, the responses I've heard have varied. Quite a few members of my small unit definitely agree with my position. Others have been more critical of the land and water protectors—a few offensively so. Another chunk of the membership was already on seasonal layoff, so I'm not sure how tuned-in they were to what was going on. One of the great challenges we face as labour leaders is the fact that a lot of union members and non-unionized workers are apolitical and/or reactionary, caring more about their own circles than about society at large. A lot are ignorant and some are actively resistant to education. Kneejerk, divisive us-and-themism is a hell of a hard thing to overcome. I have a hard enough time convincing my co-workers not to shop at WalMart and Amazon...

From the beginning, when the first rail blockade went up after the RCMP’s illegal invasion of Wet’suwet’en territory, governments, media and CN rail ramped up rhetoric attempting to pit people against Wet’suwet’en land protectors and their allies. CN has tried to weaponize the anger of VIA passengers and rail workers facing layoffs to push for removal of blockades and enforcement of injunctions. What can you tell us about the reality of CN’s decision to shut down the rails?

ZW: With the caveat that my knowledge is the broad awareness of someone who has worked on the railroad for almost sixteen years for Via Rail—which is a tenant of CN's essentially, since CN owns the infrastructure Via trains run on—and not the knowledge of someone who has access to CN's boardroom: I would say that you've summed it up pretty well in your question. CN is the bully on the block and was using their financial clout and their control of the infrastructure as leverage to get the situation resolved quickly and forcefully in their favour. I think the strategy, however, was really more to get their rich clients to put the screws to government than to alienate the sympathies of average people against blockaders. ACL did just that when they rerouted their ships away from the port of Halifax and their CEO blasted Trudeau. Because they have so much control over the movement of goods, CN knows that shutting down for two weeks won't really cost them, because their clients don't have a lot of choice.

The key takeaway from this episode, for me, is that the railroad should never have been privatized. I highly doubt, if the government of Canada still had control of the road and CN's (massively profitable) freight operations, that this would have become the crisis that we all experienced.

A number of unions and labour organizations – including the BC Federation of Teachers, the Vancouver and District Labour council and the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour – have issued solidarity statements with Wet’suwet’en people and opposed the RCMP raid and arrests. Why is it so important that organized labour stand in solidarity with Indigenous struggles like the one over the Coastal Gas Link in BC?

ZW: Simple: we have common cause against common antagonists. If we don't stand together to defend what is just against those who care only for profit, we fall divided.

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