Railway workers warn ‘work stoppage looms’ after CN, CPKC seek conciliation

The union representing 9,300 workers at Canada’s two biggest railways says public safety is at stake as contract negotiations ground to a halt this month, with a potential strike on the horizon.

Teamsters Canada president Francois Laporte said demands by Canadian National Railway Co. and Canadian Pacific Kansas City Ltd. are “non-negotiable.”

“CN and CPKC aim to eliminate all safety-critical rest provisions from our collective agreements. These provisions are necessary to combat crew fatigue and ensure public safety,” he said in a release Monday.

“We want to reach a negotiated settlement, but their demands are non-starters for the teamsters.”

As a result, a “work stoppage looms,” the union said.

CN and CPKC asked the federal labour minister Friday to appoint a conciliator for the bargaining process over a new collective agreement for train conductors, engineers and yard workers.

The notice of dispute starts the clock on a possible strike or lockout, which could occur as soon as 81 days later, in early May.

CN says recent regulatory changes to rest provisions have made it harder to find available crews, necessitating a “modernization of the compensation model.”

CPKC says it has offered wage hikes, more schedule predictability and quality of life improvements, but that the railway and the union “remain far apart on the issues.”

Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern completed their deal to become Canadian Pacific Kansas City last year.

Federal conciliators have been involved in forging nine of the 10 collective agreements since 1993 between Canadian Pacific and the train and yard workers represented by the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference, the railway noted.

Fatigue management remains a factor in safety concerns around freight rail, lingering on the Transportation Safety Board of Canada’s “watchlist” since 2016.

New rules came into effect last May that cap freight workers’ maximum shift length at 12 hours, down from 16. They also raised the minimum rest period between shifts to 10 hours at home and 12 hours when away from home, versus the previous six hours and eight hours, respectively.

In June, a Federal Court judge found Canadian Pacific guilty of contempt of court for employees working excessively long hours in 2018 and 2019. The railway vowed to appeal.

The current collective agreements go beyond what regulations require for rest, Teamsters Canada spokesman Christopher Monette said. For example, engineers — who drive the train — and conductors who oversee schedules and communication can limit their shift to 10 hours rather than the 12-hour ceiling stipulated under federal rules.

“We plug holes in the regulations that we believe exist and we seek to to improve them to the benefit of our members and to the benefit of the public,” Monette said in a phone interview.

The union is hoping for “incremental” improvements on existing rest rules, he added.

In March 2022, Canadian Pacific locked out its workers for two days due to a dispute over pay, benefits and pensions before the two sides agreed to enter binding arbitration.

In November 2019, a rail strike gripped the country for eight days until CN and 3,000 railroaders reached a tentative deal, ending a job action that halted shipments, triggered layoffs and disrupted industries across the country.

– This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 19, 2024.

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