Canadian shippers relieved after CP Rail reaches deal with train crews

MONTREAL — Canadian shippers breathed a collective sigh of relief Wednesday after CP Rail reached a tentative agreement with its train crews to end a strike mere hours after it began.

The Calgary railway and the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference reached a four-year deal and the union also completed a five-year agreement for the Kootenay Valley Railway.

Full operations at both railways will resume across Canada early Thursday morning, the union said in a news release.

“We believe this is a fair contract that our members can feel good about ratifying,” said union president Doug Finnson.

“I am personally very satisfied with what we have negotiated.”

Railway CEO Keith Creel lauded the agreement as positive for 12,000 CP Rail employees, customers and the entire Canadian economy.

“It is especially meaningful to achieve a four-year tentative agreement with our valued locomotive engineers and conductors, providing long-term stability for all parties involved,” he said in a statement.

“This is a significant step toward a renewed positive relationship growing forward together serving our customers and the Canadian economy.”

The tentative agreements must be ratified by Teamsters members over the coming months.

Details of the agreement are being withheld pending ratification.

Employment Minister Patty Hajdu thanked the parties for their commitment to the collective bargaining process.

“This is further evidence that when employers, organized labour, and governments work together and respect the collective bargaining process, we get the best results for Canadians and for our economy,” she said in a statement after the agreement was announced.

Agricultural and mining shippers, who had already been calling for government intervention, said they were pleased because the quick deal will minimize the impact on their sectors.

“We were mentally prepared for a strike that would have gone on longer but perhaps it would be fair to say that we’re relieved that it’s been resolved as quickly as it has been,” said Wade Sobkowich, executive director of the Western Grain Elevator Association, which represents the country’s largest exporters.

He said the less-than-day-long strike prevented about $20 million of grain from moving, something that should be made up.

Sobkowich said he believed the two sides were under tremendous pressure from the federal government after the prime minister signalled Tuesday that it wasn’t rushing to step in with back-to-work legislation or binding arbitration.

“If there was going to be a resolution to this it was going to have to come from the negotiating table and I think that that put pressure on both sides to try and resolve things,” Sobkowich said.

An agreement between CP Rail and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers representing 360 signalling workers just before Tuesday evening’s strike deadline ensured that Canada’s three largest cities and Via Rail would avoid chaos during Wednesday morning’s commute.

The quick resolution also suggested that the Teamsters may not have been far from a deal as well, added Todd Lewis, of the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan.

“We’re going to have a bad week of service this week but hopefully we can get everything back to normal and with the new legislation that’s been put forward we can get some improved service,” he said in an interview.

Lewis believes Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s comments suggesting the government wasn’t going to intervene put extra pressure on the railway.

“Back-to-work legislation is a two-edged sword,” he said. “It does impact a settlement but I think the signals were given that maybe the railroads wouldn’t have been happy with the settlement that would have been imposed this time.”

Trudeau’s comments were a little unsettling, said Pierre Gratton, CEO of the Mining Association of Canada, who assumed that the government would intervene because of the negative consequences for the mining sector and the Canadian economy as a whole.

“What was going on behind the scenes was much more intense than met the eye,” Gratton said.

The Conservative federal government was more aggressive with unions during the last two strikes.

Train crews ended a brief walkout in 2015 and agreed to arbitration after the Harper government warned of back-to-work legislation. Three years earlier, federal back-to-work legislation was enacted to end a 10-day strike.

Gratton wouldn’t say which approach he believes is more successful.

“I don’t really care how it’s resolved. We just can’t have our members not able to get the materials in or out so we’re just delighted, relieved.”

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