Customers of Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. are calling on the federal government to introduce back-to-work legislation as a work stoppage at the Calgary-based railway continues into its second day.
“We’re asking for all parties to find a very, very quick resolution,” said Brian Kingston, president and chief executive of the Canadian Vehicle Manufacturers’ Association.
“We appreciate the fact that they’re back at the table today. … That said, if it becomes evident that there is simply no negotiated outcome possible, we would encourage the government to look at other options.”
Approximately 3,000 conductors, engineers and train and yard workers with CP Rail were off the job over the weekend. The company and the union representing the workers, the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference, both blamed each other for causing the work stoppage, though both also said they were still talking with federal mediators.
Industry groups alarmed
A wide range of industry groups have raised the alarm about the potential economic impacts of a CP Rail shutdown, coming at a time when many businesses are already dealing with supply chain difficulties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, extreme weather, and the recent blockades of border crossings by protesters.
Canada’s agriculture industry is particularly concerned. On Monday, leaders of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association and the National Cattle Feeders’ Association were in Ottawa, urging the government to immediately bring an end to the work stoppage they say could devastate their industry.
“If these trains don’t run, we’ve got maybe two weeks of feed left,” said Cattlemen’s Association president Bob Lowe, explaining that western Canadian cattle producers have been reliant on shipments of feed by rail from the U.S. this year in the wake of last summer’s drought and resultant widespread feed shortage.
“There is no Plan B. We have no other source of feed.”
“We are, in Canada, about four to six weeks from seeding season … which means that farmers may not get all the fertilizer they need,” said Fertilizer Canada chief executive Karen Proud, adding that could cause food prices to spike given the war in Ukraine and the impact it’s already had on global fertilizer supplies as well as the prices of wheat and other grains.
Proud said the fertilizer industry believes it’s time to introduce back-to-work legislation.
“We certainly respect the collective bargaining process, but clearly these two groups haven’t been able to reach an agreement. And now the government needs to act immediately,” she said. “Some of our members who produce fertilizer, don’t have the storage capacity if product isn’t being shipped out on the rails, so we’re looking at being days away from potentially having to shut down our production of fertilizer.”
The House of Commons resumes today following a two-week break, so back-to-work legislation could come immediately if the federal government so chooses.
Bargaining table is best
However, federal Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan – who is in Calgary on Monday and said in an emailed statement he will remain there until the two parties reach an agreement – indicated over the weekend that the government believes the best deal is reached at the bargaining table.
“We could not agree more,” said Bea Bruske, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, which has been calling for CP Rail to “negotiate in good faith” with the Teamsters, in a release.
“We hope that the negotiations will be allowed to continue with mediation and that we avoid intervention by government. Let me be clear, back-to-work legislation is not needed.“
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh told reporters in Ottawa on Monday that employing back-to-work legislation in a “cavalier” way interferes with the right of workers to use the ability to strike as a negotiation tool to improve working conditions.
“The fact that it’s already something that’s being raised before workers have a chance to negotiate sends a message to employers that they don’t have to negotiate,” Singh said. “And that’s wrong.”