Railway involved in Lac-Megantic disaster lays off quarter of Quebec staff

The company involved in the deadly Quebec train derailment has laid off one-quarter of its workforce in the province, citing the disaster’s impact on the business.

Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway has laid off 19 of its 75 workers in Quebec, the provincial branch of the United Steelworkers Union said Wednesday.

That news came on the same day that the provincial government announced plans to suspend municipal elections in Lac-Megantic for two years, and allow local officials to work on the crisis instead of campaigning for November’s scheduled election.

Laid-off employees — 17 workers and two managers — received their notices the previous afternoon.

Quebec union director Daniel Roy said his members are furious.

“They are currently left on their own in this situation,” he said in an interview. “The anger is at its maximum with this company.”

The union representative denounced what he called the company’s cavalier attitude and said MMA has been completely uncommunicative since the July 6 disaster.

“Our members tell us that the company has never met with them,” he said. “There’s been no channel of communication to help them and to answer their needs.”

He said MMA is already operating with a minimum number of workers. Members fear that safety will only diminish now, he said.

Roy said the company has laid off employees who are involved in inspection and maintenance.

“We see a company that’s operating at a minimum … to make money,” he said. “They’re applying the minimum of rules — with the authorization of Transport Canada.”

Roy said the layoffs touch workers on MMA lines that are still operating — not just the Lac-Megantic route.

On its website, MMA says it owns 820 kilometres of track in Maine, Vermont and Quebec and employs approximately 170 people.

A company official said the layoffs are temporary. She said the move is prompted only by the current paralysis of the Lac-Megantic line.

When contacted by phone in Chicago, the MMA employee said chairman Edward Burkhardt has already warned of layoffs in both Farnham, Que., and in Maine.

“This is because of the track break at Lac-Megantic and they intend to rehire the employees when the line is re-opened,” said the woman, who works in Burkhardt’s office and requested anonymity.

But the union says that’s not its understanding.

It says it’s heard nothing of the sort from the company, with no indication the layoffs are temporary. It also says most of those laid off had worked on other lines.

The company has been a target of local wrath in the tragedy aftermath.

News reports have quoted anonymous employees saying they’ve been threatened and accosted; some have also quoted ex-employees lamenting the company’s tight-fisted ways.

Local resident Gaston Dupuis said he’d heard that people were throwing rocks at MMA trains as they went by.

He laughed when asked if people were upset with the company.

“What do you think?” he said in an interview.

“Everyone is angry,” said Dupuis, who was returning bottles at a depot near the track, steps from the blast site.

“It’s a massive screw-up.”

The fallout has even altered the democratic calendar.

The municipal government asked the province to put off the election scheduled for Nov. 3. The campaign was supposed to start in two months, on Sept. 18.

The provincial government accepted that request Wednesday and promised to table legislation when the national assembly reopens.

“Sept. 18 is practically tomorrow morning,” said Municipal Affairs Minister Sylvain Gaudreault.

“It’s not time to be putting posters on lamp-posts and shaking hands while the downtown is completely levelled.”

He said town councillors’ current term will be extended by two years; then the next term will be shortened by two years to keep future Lac-Megantic elections synchronized with other municipalities.

Meantime, the new federal transport minister visited Lac-Megantic to get a first-hand look at the devastated community.

Lisa Raitt and local MP Christian Paradis also spoke to reporters.

Raitt, who replaced Denis Lebel at transport in this week’s cabinet shuffle, read a statement in French admitting her faint command of the language while promising federal help.

The ministers were asked why the Red Cross and provincial government had managed to deliver emergency aid, but not the federal government.

The Quebec government has been handing out $1,000 cheques to help people stranded by the crisis, as part of an initial $60-million emergency package.

Raitt promised federal help will arrive. Meanwhile, investigations are underway by federal, provincial and police bodies.

“You can count on the federal government to be supportive,” Raitt said.

“My door is open, if they need someone to talk to. If they ask me to come, I will come.”

Many locals have been voicing questions about federal train regulations, in addition to what role the federal government might play in reconstruction.

A train carrying crude oil derailed in Lac-Megantic and exploded, triggering a massive blaze that engulfed much of the downtown core.

Search crews have found the remains of 38 people, with another 12 missing and presumed dead.

Elected officials from Lac-Megantic and surrounding communities expressed their concern on Tuesday at having rail tracks running through their towns.

-With files from Benjamin Shingler