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Strike mandate for both major railways puts Canada’s supply train on alert

Union: 9,300 CN and CPKC workers vote 97 per cent in favour of a strike mandate
Paul Boucher, President, Teamsters Canada Rail Conference (TCRC) speaks during a press conference to announce the results of strike votes at Canadian National (CN) and Canadian Pacific Kansas City (CPKC) on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, May 1, 2024. He is joined by fellow teamsters. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Employees at Canada’s two biggest railways have authorized a strike that could see thousands of workers walk off the job in three weeks if they are unable to reach new deals on contract demands.

About 6,000 employees at Canadian National Railway Co. and 3,300 at Canadian Pacific Kansas City Ltd. voted more than 97 per cent in favour of a strike mandate this week, the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference said Wednesday.

“After six months of negotiations with both companies, we are no closer to reaching a settlement than when we first began. Both companies are trying to strip our collective agreements of safety-critical rest provisions,” said union president Paul Boucher.

“We are at an impasse.”

Boucher warned that a work stoppage at both CN and CPKC simultaneously would disrupt supply chains on an unprecedented scale, calling for a deal that does not “put profits over people.”

CPKC said that the two deal options it has presented provide major benefits to workers and compromise nothing on safety. “To say or suggest otherwise is false,” the company said in a bargaining update.

But it agreed on the disruptive impact of a strike or lockout.

“A work stoppage will impact all Canadians. It will halt freight traffic on CPKC’s Canadian rail network. It would disrupt essential supply chains throughout North America and significantly constrain trade between Canada and the U.S. and Mexico,” the Calgary-based company said.

Commuters in Canada’s three biggest cities would also be affected. Among the potential strikers are dispatchers who direct passenger trains on CPKC-owned rails used by riders along Toronto’s GO Transit network as well Montreal’s Exo line and Vancouver’s West Coast Express.

A CN spokesman said the company remains focused on finding a deal that would benefit both workers and the country’s largest railroad operator, in part by “addressing work-life balance and productivity.”

“Even when the company proposed a solution that would not touch duty-rest rules, the union has rejected it,” said Jonathan Abecassis.

Three different contracts are under discussion — for CN workers, for CPKC workers and for CPKC rail traffic controllers.

This week’s strike authorization vote, which saw more than 91 per cent turnout, means conductors, engineers, yard workers and dispatchers could hit the picket lines as soon as May 22, with a mandatory federal mediation period kicking off on Wednesday.

The union and management each accused the other of obstinance at the bargaining table.

“We are here to negotiate. However, all three bargaining committees continue to see little to no engagement from the companies,” Boucher told reporters at a press conference in Ottawa on Wednesday.

“The union is unavailable to meet until May 13,” CN retorted.

“Ultimately, despite five months of consistent discussions, (Teamsters) has made very few concessions towards a negotiated agreement and has been unclear on what it is seeking for employees other than to continue focusing on a list of approximately 200 local and regional demands unrelated to a modern consolidated agreement benefitting employees and customers alike,” the Montreal-based company said in a release.

CN struck a note of pessimism around the likelihood of a smooth resolution.

“Regrettably, CN maintains a cautious outlook regarding the possibility of finalizing a deal before a labour disruption that would affect the Canadian supply chain, the North American economy and our employees,” it said.

However, CN workers in a separate union did manage to find a middle ground with the railway Wednesday. The company announced a new three-year collective agreement with 2,500 track and bridge employees who handle railroad maintenance. They make up a small slice of the United Steelworkers’ Canadian membership.

Meanwhile, tense talks between Montreal port employers and the union representing some 1,200 dockworkers have stirred up more fears of yet another possible strike this spring. Longshore workers rejected an offer by management last week, voting more than 99.5 per cent against the would-be deal.

READ ALSO: Canadian Pacific, union appear on track for spring rail strike