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Canada’s Rail Workers Hold Strike Mandate: What Comes Next

Over 9,000 Canadian railway workers are poised for a potential strike or lockout come May 22, impacting both of the nation’s key railways — Canadian National (CN) and Canadian Pacific Kansas City (CPKC).

Members of the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference (TCRC), including train conductors, engineers, yard workers, and rail traffic controllers, have overwhelmingly voted in favor of a strike mandate due to a deadlock in negotiations concerning rest periods.

TCRC President Paul Boucher, addressing the media in Ottawa, emphasized that while a simultaneous work stoppage at CN and CPKC would disrupt supply chains to an unprecedented degree, such a move is not the preferred strategy for the Teamsters. He noted uncertainty regarding the companies’ intentions.

CN has stated that the union is resistant to adopting a “more modern agreement” structured around hourly schedules, citing the need to safeguard the Canadian supply chain and the broader North American economy while ensuring fair treatment for workers.

Meanwhile, CPKC has highlighted significant differences between the parties and emphasized that their rest proposals prioritize safety and align with Canadian regulations.

What is the central issue?

Central to the ongoing contract negotiations between the parties is the duration of rest periods between shifts.

The TCRC asserts that proposed modifications by the companies concerning these provisions pose risks to workplace safety.

Boucher emphasized that the combination of disrupted sleep, inadequate rest facilities, and variable duty periods can significantly jeopardize safety. He refuted claims that the companies are advocating for predictable work schedules.

Instead, Boucher pointed out that CPKC has suggested 12-hour calling windows, where workers could be called at any time during the window to operate a train for another 12 hours. He highlighted the potential dangers of such a system, particularly if a worker is called for a shift shortly after waking up.

Both railways contend that their stances align with the regulations outlined in the Railway Safety Act. According to the act, the minimum rest period at a home terminal is 12 hours, reduced to 10 hours when traveling or stationed at a remote site. This must include a minimum of eight uninterrupted hours without being called by the rail company.

Additionally, there are fatigue self-assessment requirements for rail workers on overnight shifts, mandating that they have slept for at least five hours within a 24-hour period.

Boucher argues that these regulations serve as baseline requirements, intended to complement provisions in collective bargaining agreements.

With the conciliation period concluding on May 1, both the union and rail companies are now in a mandatory 21-day cooling-off period before further action can be pursued.

CN reports that the union has indicated the earliest possible return to the bargaining table would be May 13.

What happens if there is a strike or lockout?

Canada, with its expansive geography, relies heavily on railroads to transport a diverse range of goods, spanning from oil and agricultural products to consumer goods.

Andre Harpe, president of the Grain Growers of Canada, expressed deep concern over the potential rail strike. He emphasized the critical role of railways in delivering fertilizers essential for farming operations, stressing the potential adverse impact on agricultural productivity and profitability.

Harpe underscored the agricultural sector’s heavy dependence on rail transportation, which facilitates the movement of fertilizers and crops to market. Efforts are underway within the Grain Growers organization to mitigate the impact of a potential strike.

The looming threat of a rail strike follows a significant labor dispute at the Port of Vancouver last year, during which a substantial volume of grain shipments was stalled.

Highlighting the crucial role of Canada’s grain exports, Harpe emphasized the global significance of timely grain flows, stressing the country’s pivotal role as a major grain exporter.

Fraser Johnson, an operations management professor at Western University, emphasized the far-reaching ramifications of a rail strike, particularly on Canadian supply chains. He warned of potential disruptions to industries ranging from automotive manufacturing to agriculture and consumer goods.

Johnson emphasized the lack of viable alternatives for industries like forestry, agriculture, mining, and consumer products, which heavily rely on rail transportation within their supply chains.

Despite the escalating rhetoric, Johnson suggested that neither side truly desires a strike, indicating that deadlines such as May 22 often serve as catalysts for progress in labor negotiations.

Labour Minister Seamus O’Reagan addressed the strike vote during question period, affirming the availability of federally appointed conciliators and expressing a desire for a resolution to be reached through negotiations.

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