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

The union representing more than 9,000 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.

Labour minister asked to appoint a conciliator for bargaining process

A freight train in a railyard.
On Friday, Canadian National Railway Co. and Canadian Pacific Kansas City Ltd. asked the labour minister to appoint a conciliator for the bargaining process over a new collective agreement for train conductors, engineers and yard workers. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

The union representing more than 9,000 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 press release on 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 after the request, in early May.

CN says recent regulatory changes to rest provisions have made it harder to find available crews.

"Our offer, which was refused by the union, guaranteed predictable schedules and consecutive days off for employees to specifically address work-rest balance, while keeping supply chains fluid," spokesman Jonathan Abecassis said in an email.

That proposal would see employees on a scheduled 40-hour work week, with at least 10 or 12 hours of rest between shifts — depending on whether they're at home or away — and either two or three consecutive days off each week, in compliance with federal rules.

Abecassis said the union's demands would place stress on supply chains and more costs on consumers.

Safety at stake, says union

CPKC spokesman Patrick Waldron says the company has offered wage hikes, quality of life improvements and predictable schedules with assigned days off, but that the railway and the union "remain far apart on the issues."

Federal conciliators have been involved in negotiating 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.

Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern completed their deal to become Canadian Pacific Kansas City last year, creating a network that stretches from Halifax to Vancouver and the U.S. Gulf Coast down to southern Mexico.

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" gains on existing rest provisions, he added.

In March 2022, Canadian Pacific experienced a two-day work stoppage due to a dispute over pay, benefits and pensions before both 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.

Several incidents this month have driven home the dangers of rail work.

On Friday, two crew members were injured when four CPKC locomotives slammed into a stopped train and derailed Friday night east of Revelstoke, B.C., sparking a fire.

The Transportation Safety Board also said officials were deployed to the scene of another Canadian Pacific derailment Saturday about 200 kilometres farther east in Field, B.C.

Several workers at major American railways were also killed in separate incidents since the start of the year.

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