CP Rail and Teamsters agree to binding arbitration

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Back to work, Thomas. Prayitno via Wikimedia

Transportation crisis averted

It has been an eventful week for employees and stakeholders of the Canadian Pacific Railway, hopefully one that is nearing a mutually-satisfactory resolution over the next few days. On Wednesday, March 16, the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference (TCRC) reported the results of a strike vote by Canadian Pacific employees earlier in the month. The report revealed that over 96 per cent of union members voted in favour of a work stoppage, with a potential strike likely at any time with a 72-hour notice from TCRC. TCRC and the company began negotiations last September, with the main issues being wages, pensions, and aspects of working conditions.

Customers of Canadian Pacific Railway expressed concerns about the potentially catastrophic consequences of a rail strike, particularly for many farmers, exporters and manufacturers, and to the already existing supply chain crisis. David MacLean with the trade association Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters said that about 15 per cent of Canada’s exports are transported by rail to various ports, carrying large quantities of grain, potash, and coal.

Also on Wednesday, CP Rail shared a statement to TCRC stating that they are planning to lock out almost 3000 employees if the union and the company are unable to come to a negotiated settlement or agree to binding arbitration. The two sides were at odds over more than 20 outstanding issues, including wages, benefits, and pensions.

On Thursday, 45 Canadian industry groups expressed concerns about disruptions to CP Rail operations, and the potential consequences for Canadian economy. Some industry groups called for the government to enact return-to-work legislation similar to the one passed during the Canada Post strike of 2018, expressing concern that any work stoppage will hamper trade recovery from COVID restrictions and supply chain problems.

Early Sunday morning on March 20, thousands of CP Rail workers began the long-anticipated strike. The strike involved nearly 3000 engineers, conductors, and other train employees, and took effect 1:00 a.m. EST. TCRC issued a press release just before midnight saying a lockout was being initiated by management, and that TCRC members across the country are on strike with picketing underway at various locations. The office of the Federal Labour Minister issued a statement saying that while work stoppage had begun, both parties were still at the bargaining table with mediators, and are expected to work until an agreement can be reached.

On Monday, March 21, Canada’s oil and natural gas producers said they are closely monitoring the ongoing shutdown, reiterating that prolonging work stoppage could limit Canada’s ability to get more oil to the market. Ben Brunnen, a vice-president with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said that the shortage of available pipeline capacity has meant that rail is an increasingly crucial mode of transportation for crude oil. Also at the House of Commons on Monday, the Labour Minister acknowledged the unfortunate timing of the work stoppage and said that ongoing negotiations are the best option to resolve the dispute. NDP leader Jagmeet Singh told reporters that back-to-work legislation would undermine the right of workers to use the ability to strike to improve working conditions.

Finally, on Tuesday, March 22, CP Rail and TCRC jointly announced that they will be resuming operations, and have agreed to a final and binding arbitration in the interest of averting more pain to firms battling supply-chain disruptions. The agreement with TCRC ends the work stoppage that began Sunday, March 20. Union spokesperson Dave Fulton said that while a binding arbitration is not the preferred method, they have been able to negotiate terms and conditions that were in the best interests of the union. The Federal Labour Minister, who mediated the talks, said normal operations will continue during the arbitration period. Labour Relations experts have stated that the arbitration process could take several weeks. Meanwhile, business groups continue to advocate that rail be declared an essential service, saying that a permanent solution is needed to avoid future supply chain disruptions.

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