CP engineers, conductors out on strike

Locomotive engineers, conductors and other unionized rail workers at Canadian Pacific Railway (CP) have hit the bricks, as of 12:01 a.m. Wednesday.

"The strike has now started but talks will resume first thing in the morning," the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference (TCRC), which represents the railway’s 4,800-odd striking employees, said in a release shortly after midnight.

The trades affected also include CP’s yardmen, trainspersons and rail traffic controllers.

Calgary-based CP, which said Saturday it would "proceed with a safe and structured shutdown of its train operations in Canada" in the event of a strike, had no immediate formal comment.

"We have made every reasonable effort to get a settlement," TCRC vice-president Doug Finnson said in the union’s release. "Every union member knows how important the outstanding issues are. We will not walk away from the negotiation table."

Federal Labour Minister Lisa Raitt said Tuesday she would meet with union and company officials, and has done so, according to the TCRC’s release.

The union praised Raitt for a "sensible approach" to the union’s offer to maintain staff for commuter rail service during a strike. Raitt, according to Finnson, "played a big part in making sure commuter train service is not interrupted."

"We told CP management that nothing could justify their decision to keep us from operating the commuter trains," Finnson said Tuesday. "They wanted to fabricate a crisis, but it didn’t work."

Rail freight service will halt, however, although Finnson said "we are as concerned for CP’s corporate customers as we were for the commuters."

Raitt said Tuesday she would "remind the parties that the best solution is the one they reach themselves," and urged the company and union "to continue negotiating and reach a prompt resolution to these disputes."

CP’s TCRC-represented employees announced in late April that they had voted 95 per cent in favour of strike action. The workers’ most recent contracts expired Dec. 31, 2011.

Major issues, the Teamsters said, include "work rules, fatigue management, and the pension plan, which the employer wants to cut by 40 per cent."

CP, which saw its CEO Fred Green quit last week just hours ahead of a move by a major U.S. shareholder to oust him over the railway’s financial performance, has said its pension offer "aligns with the industry and allows the railway to remain competitive."

"Orders to fill"

Raitt has not said whether the federal government would legislate CP’s employees back to work, although she’s been asked to consider the idea. The House of Commons adjourned Friday and does not resume sitting until May 28.

In an open letter to Raitt on Sunday, the Grain Growers of Canada and Canadian Fertilizer Institute asked her to "take early action to head off this work stoppage before it damages the Canadian economy."

The two associations said they "further recommend the government impose back-to-work legislation immediately in the event of a strike, reconvening Parliament to do so if necessary."

Canada’s grain growers "have sale orders to fill around the world and are heavily dependent on the railways to move their product to market," said the letter, co-authored by GGC executive director Richard Phillips.

"Even in good times, the Canadian pulse industry is often only able to procure between 12 and 18 per cent of its car orders and any disruption in rail service makes it nearly impossible to operate."

The two groups also asked for "longer-term action" including talks between government and "affected stakeholders to find new ways to deal with labour disputes that do not hold broad segments of the Canadian economy hostage."

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