LAC-MEGANTIC, Que.—The company involved in a deadly train derailment has laid off one-quarter of its Quebec workforce, 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. He 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 and were 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 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.
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.”
-With files from Benjamin Shingler