Canadian railway workers at CN, CPKC vote to strike, says union

By Rod Nickel and David Ljunggren

WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) -Thousands of railway workers in Canada at Canadian National Railway (CN) and Canadian Pacific Kansas City (CPKC) have voted overwhelmingly to strike as early as May 22, the union said on Wednesday.

Railways are critical to Canada's economy, due to its vast geography and exports of grain, potash and coal.

Contracts covering locomotive engineers, conductors and yard workers at CN and CPKC expired on Dec. 31, 2023, and Teamsters Canada Rail Conference is re-negotiating a third agreement covering CPKC rail traffic controllers.

The three worker groups, numbering 9,300 workers, each voted over 95% to authorize a strike.

The sides have made no progress in six months of negotiations, said Teamsters Canada president Paul Boucher, adding that the companies were trying to remove rest provisions that are critical to safety.

CN said in a statement that the union has opposed moving toward a more modern agreement based on an hourly rate and scheduling changes and has focused instead on 200 local and regional demands.

CPKC said the parties remain far apart and now begin a mandatory 21-day period of federal mediation. The company's proposals for rest do not compromise safety and comply with Canadian regulations, CPKC said.

The potential strike is unique in that it would involve both major railways, grinding bulk grain shipping to a near halt, said Wade Sobkowich, executive director of Western Grain Elevator Association, which represents grain handlers including Cargill and Richardson International.

"There is no plan B because, as we’ve said for decades, there aren’t competitive alternatives," Sobkowich said.

Grain sales typically slow weeks ahead of a railway stoppage as shippers and exporters try to minimize costs for vessel wait times and contract penalties, Sobkowich said.

Canada is a major wheat and canola exporter.

Transport Minister Pablo Rodriguez said the government is concerned about a potential strike's impact on the supply chain and urged the sides to negotiate in good faith.

(Reporting by Rod Nickel in Winnipeg, Manitoba and David Ljunggren in Ottawa; Editing by Kirsten Donovan and Mark Potter)