CN Strike Update: Union decries back-to-work law; Railway calls stalemate

OTTAWA — The Conservative government in Ottawa says it’ll fast-track previously introduced back-to-work legislation to end a renewed strike by CN workers, just as railway declared a national agreement with the fragmented United Transportation Union cannot be reached.

Responding to pressure from industry groups, Labour Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn said he will introduce back-to-work legislation that was to be tabled in attempt to end the first two-week strike by 2,800 CN conductors and yard workers in February.

CN and the railway reached a tentative deal before the law was passed, but last week 80 percent of UTU members voted to reject the agreement and the union renewed the strike on a rotating basis. CN subsequent locked out workers who joined the strike.

CN says it cannot work out a deal with what
it says is two competing factions of the UTU.

It’s unknown, however, which opposition parties will support or fight the legislation as it moves to Second Reading tomorrow. So, how quickly the legislation could be passed by Parliament and workers return back to their jobs is unclear.

Following discussions between CN and UTU, the railway concluded it cannot continue to negotiate as one faction of the UTU is reporting for work — awaiting the outcome of an application before the Canada Industrial Relations Board by the Teamsters Canada to take over representation of the UTU workers — while another UTU faction is engaging in rotating withdrawals of service, in support of the UTU’s bargaining position.

“In light of the continuing internal conflicts within the UTU, CN believes it’s increasingly clear that the union today is unable to deliver a national negotiated settlement that its members across Canada would ratify,” CN President and CEO E. Hunter Harrison said in a press release. “This bargaining process is broken. After eight months of negotiations, we are no closer to a national agreement.”

CN has instead invited union locals back to the bargaining table to address and negotiate regional settlements, based on three other settlements the railway reached with other union recently.

Several UTU locals have refused to obey UTU and participate in the rotating strikes. Last week dozens of Halifax CN workers stayed at the job. More recently, Local 1298 in Capreol, Ont. said they would not listen to head office.
Predictably, the railway’s announcement angered union officials, who accused CN of trying to weaken the UTU’s ability to continue negotiations.

“CN Rail has effectively cast a chill over its relationship with its key union. CN Rail appears intent on acting on the company’s objective of redrawing the
boundaries of organized railway workers in Canada into four fragmented regional bargaining units.

Shippers say the renewed strike is
hampering seasonally imported merchandise.

In a letter to CN, UTU’s Canadian Vice Presidents John Armstrong and Bob Sharpe warn that they believe CN “has acted contrary to the Canada Labour Code by pressing recognition issues” and “by purporting to negotiate in the media and not at the bargaining table.”

The union also blasted the government’s decision to move on back-to-work legislation and warned that only bargaining will bring long term peace to CN Rail’s operations.

“If the government is serious about getting things on track at CN Rail,” said John Armstrong, “then they should tell CN to get serious about bargaining with the UTU.”

“We took the Minster of Labour at his word when he asked the parties to find a negotiated solution,” said UTU Vice-President Bob Sharpe. “Has (he) forgotten the public statements he made only a few days ago?”

Meanwhile business groups continue to call for a swift end the the latest labor disruption.

The Canadian Industrial Transportation Association (CITA) joined other groups in urging the rapid passing of the back-to-work legislation.

“This strike adds to the logistical problems faced by a broad spectrum of Canadian industry in serving domestic and export markets” said Bob Ballantyne, president of CITA. “Shippers serving highly competitive export markets and retailers needing to stock their shelves with seasonal imported merchandise will all be affected.”

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