Liberals, opposition debate CP Rail stoppage but avoid discussing back-to-work legislation

While the CP Rail work stoppage has businesses calling for back-to-work legislation, the Liberal government and opposition MPs avoided discussing the idea as they debated next steps in the House of Commons Monday.

In question period, Conservative MP Marilyn Gladu said the agriculture and automotive sectors are being affected by the work stoppage already.

“What is the government’s plan to immediately resolve this dispute?” she asked Labor Minister Seamus O’Regan.

O’Regan acknowledged that the work stoppage is happening at a bad time, given the supply chain woes already affecting the Canadian economy. He said the ongoing negotiations are the best option to bring the dispute to an end.

“Every day that goes by, for farmers and manufacturers in this country particularly, is an hour or a day too long and I think that the parties at the table know that,” O’Regan said in the House.

“They have an enormous responsibility to Canadians to negotiate an agreement that protects supply chains that Canadians depend on. They are working hard. No one has left the table. Our party believes that the best deals are reached at the table.”

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh told reporters in Ottawa on Monday that employing back-to-work legislation in a “cavalier” way would undermine the right of workers to use the ability to strike 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.”

Locking out employees

CP Rail shut down Canadian operations Sunday after a work stoppage began just before midnight. More than 3,000 conductors, engineers, train and yard workers were picketing Sunday.

The company and the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference, the union representing the workers, started negotiating a new contract last September. The union said the main issues are wages, pensions and aspects of working conditions — such as not forcing employees to take federally mandated reset days when they’re away from home.

Employees voted 97 per cent in favor of a strike March 3 and were in a legal strike position as of March 16 — the same day the company issued an ultimatum stating that a deal be would have to be reached by March 20 at midnight to prevent a lockout.

Federal mediators joined the talks March 11. Just before midnight Sunday, the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference said in a media statement that the company was locking employees out.

Rail workers picket in Regina on March 19, 2022 (CBC / Radio Canada)

The company and the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference blamed each other for causing the work stoppage, though both also said they were still talking with federal mediators.

Several industry groups have raised the alarm about the potential economic impacts of a CP Rail shutdown at a time when many businesses are dealing with supply chain difficulties caused by the pandemic, extreme weather in BC and the recent blockades of border crossings by protesters. That’s putting O’Regan under heavy pressure to legislate CP Rail workers back to work.

“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.”

Concerns about fertilizer shipments

Canada’s agriculture industry is particularly worried. On Monday, leaders of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association and the National Cattle Feeders’ Association were in Ottawa urging the government to bring an end to the work stoppage they said 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. He said western Canadian cattle producers have been relying on shipments of feed by rail from the US this year in the wake of last summer’s drought and resulting 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.

Proud said a fertilizer shortage could cause food prices to spike, given the impact the war in Ukraine has had already on global fertilizer supplies and the prices of wheat and other grains.

Canadian fertilizer companies like Nutrien rely on rail to get their product to market. Fertilizer Canada chief executive Karen Proud says the industry wants to see back-to-work legislation. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

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.”

Goldy Hyder, president and CEO of the Business Council of Canada, said US lawmakers and counterparts — including White House officials — have been worried for weeks about a possible labor dispute.

“I expect to hear a lot about it,” Hyder said, ten days after an earlier visit to Capitol Hill during which he heard similar concerns.

“There’s a genuine risk here of Canada being seen as unreliable at a time when reliability is most valued and needed.”

The damage to Canada’s reputation could be lasting, coming as it does on the heels of last month’s week-long shutdown of the Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ont., he added.

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