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Workers at Canadian National Railway go on strike in move that could further threaten Canada’s supply chains

CN Rail locomotives are moved on tracks past cargo containers sitting on idle train cars at port in Vancouver, on Friday, February 21, 2020.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Workers in signals and communications have gone on strike at Canadian National Railway Co. in a development that threatens to exacerbate transport bottlenecks across the country in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some 750 members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Canada walked off the job Saturday after failing to agree to a new labor contract with the railway, union negotiator Steve Martin said in an interview Sunday afternoon. CN later confirmed the walkout.

The two sides are not meeting in person but continue to talk and exchange contract proposals, Mr. Martin said. CN said in a statement Monday that normal operations continue safely and that it has implemented a contingency plan allowing the railway to maintain normal operations and serve customers “for as long as required.”

A lasting strike could deliver yet another hit to supply chains in Canada and drive up prices for goods, which have already been affected by the pandemic. Last year in British Columbia, mudslides and flooding severed all major highways between the Lower Mainland and the Interior, as well as freight routes used by Canadian National and rival Canadian Pacific.

There is no impact to operations currently and there is none expected, CN spokesman Jonathan Abecassis said.

The union challenged that view, saying fallout is unavoidable if the work stoppage continues. “The impact to operations is highly likely,” Mr. Martin said. That’s because a large percentage of workers are on-call employees responding to troubleshooting situations like the aftermath of thunderstorms, he explained. Others do preventive maintenance.

The striking workers repair and maintain CN’s trackside electrical and signaling equipment, such as crossings, track signals and switches. This equipment dictates the potential speed of trains, much in the same way traffic lights dictate the speed of motor vehicles on the road, Mr. Martin said.

CN intends to use managers and contract workers to do the work as needed, Mr. Abecassis said. It was unclear how this would be possible in Quebec, which has stringent laws against using non-management replacement workers in a labour-conflict situation.

Mr. Abecassis said CN’s contingency plan complies with applicable laws.

The union last week gave the company a 72-hour notice of its intention to strike. The company has offered to resolve the remaining differences with the union, chiefly on wages and benefits, through binding arbitration.

On Monday morning, CN released a letter written by Rob Reilly, its chief operating officer, to the striking employees. In it, Mr. Reilly says the company is disappointed that the union rejected the company’s latest offer and he spells out the details of that offer.

According to the letter, it includes a 10 per cent increase in wages over three years as well as more paramedical benefit and mental health support.

“We have met or exceeded every one of the union’s demands in an effort to reach an agreement,” Mr. Reilly says in the letter. “I sincerely hope we can come to a resolution as soon as possible.”

One major issue being contested concerns what’s called “out-of-region work,” Mr. Martin said. The company wants to be able to move workers out of their home region for a specific number of days at time, Mr. Martin said. The same issue came up during the previous contract negotiations, which yielded a five-year collective agreement that expired at the end of 2021.

The last major strike at CN was in November 2019 when some 3,000 conductors, trainpersons and yard workers represented by Teamsters Canada walked off the job for eight days. The stoppage froze shipments and hit various sectors across the country.

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