Thousands of Canada’s rail workers have a strike mandate. What happens now?

Click to play video: 'Manitoba farmers, producer groups concerned about effect of potential rail strike'
Manitoba farmers, producer groups concerned about effect of potential rail strike
Unionized workers at Canada’s two largest railways have voted in favour of a strike, and could walk off the job on May 22 if no deal is reached, leaving prairie farmers and producer organizations concerned about the potential effect on their business – May 2, 2024

More than 9,000 Canadian rail workers have a mandate opening the door to a possible strike or lockout on May 22, affecting both of the country’s major railways — Canadian National (CN) and Canadian Pacific Kansas City (CPKC).

Train conductors, engineers, yard workers and rail traffic controllers under Teamsters Canada Rail Conference (TCRC) voted overwhelmingly in favour of a strike mandate Wednesday as negotiations reached an impasse over rest periods.

“The simultaneous work stoppage at both CN and CPKC would disrupt supply chains on a scale Canada has likely never experienced. This has not been and never will be the Teamster strategy, though we can’t be sure the same is true for the companies,” TCRC President Paul Boucher said at an Ottawa press conference Wednesday.

Meanwhile, CN says that the union will not agree to a “more modern agreement” based on an hourly schedule. The company says this is to help “protect the Canadian supply chain, North American economy” and give workers a fair deal.

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CPKC said the parties remain far apart and their proposals for rest do not compromise safety and comply with Canadian regulations.

What is the central issue?

The length of rest periods between shifts is a central issue in the contract negotiations between the sides.

The TCRC say that requests from the companies to modify these provisions create workplace safety issues.

“The accumulative effect of sleep disruptions, inadequate sleep facilities and varying duty periods can lead to significant safety risks. Claims that the companies are proposing predictable work schedules are inaccurate,” Boucher said.

“Instead, CPKC have proposed 12-hour calling windows, during which workers could be phoned up at any time and expected to go operate a train for another 12 hours. This could easily become dangerous if a person who woke up at 7 a.m. is called for a 12-hour shift at 5 p.m.”

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Both railways say their position is in line with existing regulations laid out in the Railway Safety Act.

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Under the act, the minimum rest period when an employee is at their home terminal is 12 hours, and 10 hours when travelling or at a remote site. This includes at least eight hours without being called by the rail company.

There are also a host of fatigue self-assessment requirements for rail workers on overnight shifts, including making sure they’ve slept for at least five hours in a 24-hour period.

Boucher argues that these regulations are meant to be minimum requirements that work in conjunction with collective bargaining agreement provisions.

The conciliation period ended on May 1, and now both the union and rail companies are in the legally required 21-day cooling off period before any further action can be taken.

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According to CN, the union says the earliest they are able to return to the bargaining table is May 13.

What happens if there is a strike or lockout?

Canada is a geographically vast country where the railroads carry a wide variety of goods such from oil to agricultural products to consumer goods.

“I have to admit, we’re extremely worried right now,” Grain Growers of Canada president Andre Harpe told Global News.

“We rely on the rail to bring a lot of the fertilizers that we use closer to the farm. So this could have a devastating effect on our bottom line. It gets back to at the end of the day, we have to get our seed in the ground with the right nutrients to get a crop. So, this sets up the year for us. So, we were extremely worried.”

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Harpe says the agricultural community relies on rail to move a vast majority of their products, whether it’s fertilizer or crops heading to market. So, he says the Grain Growers are doing what they can to try and avert a strike.

This follows a significant strike at the Port of Vancouver last year, where Harpe says 52 ships worth of grain were loaded and held up due to the labour dispute.

“Close to 95 per cent of our grain is exported. To me, we are the breadbasket of the world. And it gets back to a lot of these countries that are dependent on timely flows of grain,” Harpe said.

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Operations management professor at Western University Fraser Johnson says he believes a rail strike or lockout would have a much more significant impact on Canadian supply chains than the Port of Vancouver strike.

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“I think this would have a more significant impact, quite frankly, because it affects a much broader set of industries. It would almost immediately, shut down, the automotive assembly plants, here in Canada and potentially plants in the U.S.,” Johnson said.

Johnsons says the biggest consumer impact on a rail strike like this would be an “almost immediate shutdown” on the shipping of certain goods, such as agricultural products, across Canada.

“In industries like, forestry, agriculture, mining, and consumer products, they really don’t have any other options but to use rail as part of their supply chain and logistics,” he said.

Despite the rhetoric, Johnson says he doesn’t believe either side truly wants a strike and sometimes deadlines like May 22 are needed to move labour negotiations along.

“Unfortunately in this and many other situations, quite often you need a deadline, to be able to see something happen so that both sides are able to kind of reconcile with what is a best offer. But I really can’t see the, federal government letting a real strike go on for a very long time,” Johnson said.

On Thursday, Labour Minister Seamus O’Reagan was asked about the strike vote during question period. The minister said that federally appointed conciliators remain available to the two sides and that he wants to see a deal made at the bargaining table.

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— With files from Global News’ Sam Brownell and Reuters.

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