Ottawa under pressure as CP Rail stoppage enters second day as talks continue

Ottawa under pressure as CP Rail stoppage enters second day as talks continue
Photo credit: Dan Loren/Unsplash

If the work stoppage at Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. doesn’t end soon, southern Alberta feedlot operator James Bekkering says he and many of his counterparts will be facing a serious situation.

Due to last summer’s drought which dried up pastures across the Prairie province, western Canadian cattle producers have been dependent this winter on CP Rail shipments of imported corn from the U.S. to feed their animals.

If the work stoppage at the Calgary-based railway doesn’t end soon, Bekkering said he and many others will be out sof livestock feed within one to three weeks.

“It’s got the anxiety levels up quite high among cattle feeders, for sure,” said Bekkering, who is also the chair of the National Cattle Feeders’ Association. “Any further delay, and we’re not looking forward to what happens when we run out. Because we don’t have a contingency plan.”

Bekkering and many other customers of Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. called on the federal government Monday to introduce back-to-work legislation as a work stoppage at the Calgary-based railway continued into its second day.

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.

Those talks continued Monday in Calgary. Federal Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan was also on site.

“I don’t intend to leave until we have an agreement,” O’Regan said Monday. “I am optimistic, with people at the table and not leaving, that we will reach the deal that Canadians demand and want as soon as possible.”

Industry groups say the stakes are particularly high, given that the CP Rail shutdown comes 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.

“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.”

Fertilizer Canada chief executive Karen Proud warned that with just a month to go before spring seeding gets under way, a rail shutdown means farmers may not get all the fertilizer they need.

She said 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 resumed Monday following a two-week break, so back-to-work legislation could come immediately if the federal government so chooses.

However, O’Regan indicated over the weekend that the government believes the best deal is reached at the bargaining table. And while business and industry voices are calling on the government to use all tools at its disposal to bring an end to the work stoppage, labour advocates say talks need to be allowed to progress.

“We hope that the negotiations will be allowed to continue with mediation and that we avoid intervention by government,” said Bea Bruske, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, which has been calling for CP Rail to ‘negotiate in good faith’ with the Teamsters.

“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.”

Peggy Nash, senior advisor with Ryerson University’s Centre for Labour Management Relations, said if a negotiated agreement between the two parties can’t be reached, some form of binding arbitration could be another possible solution that could prevent the need for a federally mandated back-to-work order.

“But this is only day two, and the fact that the two sides have indicated they would like to keep talking is a hopeful sign,” Nash said.

“There’s a great deal of pressure right now on all sides, and this kind of pressure can focus the mind in a way that months-long bargaining might not.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 21, 2022.

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