Feds ask Canada Industrial Relations Board to review potential rail strike

by Derek Cloutier

The Ministry of Labour has asked the Canada Industrial Relations Board (CIRB) to look into the potential rail workers’ strike and if it would impact the health and safety of Canadians.

Minister of Labour Seamus O’Regan Jr. posted on social media May 9 addressing the situation, writing, “Today I asked the Canada Industrial Relations Board to look into maintenance of activities agreements between @TeamstersRail, @CNRailway & @CPKCrail. Serious concerns have been raised about potential impacts to the health and safety of Canadians. It’s our duty to look into this.”

Inside Logistics reported May 2 that the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference (TCRC) announced that close to 10,000 workers at CN and CPKC had voted to authorize strikes at both companies, potentially impacting Canada’s supply chain. Unless an agreement can be reached, a work stoppage could occur as early as May 22.

“After six months of negotiations with both companies, we are no closer to reaching a settlement than when we first began,” Paul Boucher, president of the TCRC, said of the vote. “Both companies are trying to strip our collective agreements of safety-critical rest provisions.”

John Corey, president of the Freight Management Association of Canada (FMA), says a strike would “break the Canadian supply chain” as there are no rail alternatives.

John Corey

“A rail strike will quickly shut down all major Canadian ports. All imports and exports would be affected. As current inventory is used up, shortages of food, chemicals, fuel, and consumer durables will occur,” says Corey. “Exports of lumber, potash, coal, iron ore, and other minerals will stop. Mines and plants will shut down. Workers will be laid off. Canada’s reputation as a reliable trading partner will be hurt, especially with our U.S. neighbour which receives 75 per cent of all Canadian exports.”

Corey says the FMA would like to see the Canada Industrial Relations Board determine that a rail strike would jeopardize Canadian’s health and safety and prevent it from happening.

However, he does not believe that will ultimately happen due to the fact he feels the government does not see transportation work, other than for the grain sector, as an essential service.

“Having said that, the CIRB intervention, is a way of putting the strike date off, probably by a month or more,” he says. “This will mean no strike action on May 22, more time to negotiate and more uncertainty for shippers, for longer.”

Everstream Analytics has also looked at the impact of a rail strike, and says that more than 900,000 tons of cargo is moved daily on Canada’s railways, from chemicals to automotive parts and e-commerce packages. Canada’s key ports such as Vancouver, Prince Rupert, and Halifax are all connected to the railway network, and transport key parts and goods to other parts of the country, and even to the U.S. Midwest.

“About 70 per cent of freight between metro areas in Canada moves by rail and half of Canada’s exports get to the ports by rail, not to mention all the global freight that comes into Canadian ports and all the cross-border freight between the United States and Canada,” says Scott Shannon, vice-president of C.H. Robinson, a U.S. supply chain solutions company. “Even freight traveling between Mexico and Canada, which is the case for many automotive manufacturers, would get caught up in a potential strike.”

During the strike vote, at CN, conductors, locomotive engineers, and yard workers voted 97.6 per cent to authorize a strike, with a 93.3 per cent turnout.

At CPKC, conductors, locomotive engineers, and yard workers voted 99 per cent to authorize a strike, with a 91.7 per cent turnout.

And finally, rail traffic controllers – or RTCs – at CPKC voted 95.3 per cent to authorize a strike, with a 96.6 per cent turnout.

“A simultaneous work stoppage at both CN and CPKC would disrupt supply chains on a scale Canada has likely never experienced,” Boucher said after the vote. “I would like to make it very clear that provoking a crisis on that scale has not been, and never will be, our goal. The reality is that we would very much like to avoid a work stoppage. With these results, we intend to go back to the bargaining table, work with federal mediators, and do everything in our power to reach a fair deal for our members. A deal that does not compromise on safety – or put profits over people.”