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CN Rail workers narrowly reject contract

CN Rail workers narrowly reject contractA CN locomotive makes it's way through the Taschereau yard in Montreal, Nov., 28, 2009. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

MONTREAL - The union that represents about 3,000 yard workers and train crews at Canadian National Railway says a strike is unlikely even after members narrowly rejected a second tentative contract.

"We do still have a valid strike mandate but that's somewhat limited given the government's ability to take away our right to strike," said Roland Hackl, general chairman of the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference.

The union can give 72-hours strike notice at any time, but the Harper government has already prepared back-to-work legislation that it can enact at any time.

Labour Minister Kellie Leitch said a work stoppage at the country's largest railway would damage the economy and negatively impact other employees across Canada.

"During this fragile global economic recovery, we must protect jobs and vital sectors in Canada's economy," Leitch said in a statement issued Friday.

"I urge both parties to consider the best interests of all Canadians and avoid a work stoppage by sending their outstanding issues to voluntary arbitration." CN (TSX:CNR) had proposed binding arbitration to avoid any labour disruption, requesting an answer by Friday afternoon, but the union has indicated that it's not in favour of that approach.

Hackl said the union's leadership will assess its options but he fails to see the point of binding arbitration when the company has failed to respect the collective agreement, past arbitration rulings and labour board decisions, particularly related to rest periods.

Late Friday, CN issued a statement saying it would give the union "one last opportunity" to reach a negotiated settlement, but only if the union "agrees upfront to binding arbitration if the talks fail."

"In the current circumstances, we must move forward with an approach that will provide certainty of outcome for our employees, customers and other stakeholders," CEO Claude Mongeau said.

"CN is asking the . . . . (union) to respond to its final bargaining offer by tomorrow, March 22, at the latest."

The collective agreement allows workers to request a rest after working 10 hours, but the company is requiring them to work a full 12-hour shift, the maximum permitted by law.

"Between 40 and 60 crews on any given day in Western Canada are being forced to operate beyond their contractual rest periods. They have requested to be taken off a train because they're tired and they're told no it won't happen."

The company wanted to amend the collective agreement to have provisions mirror the legislative requirements, but backed down during negotiations.

Other irritants include "arbitrary" changes to other rules in place for decades, Hackl says.

Hackl said he hasn't heard many objections to terms of the tentative agreement itself. While some may have wanted large wage increases or specific things, the deal as a whole was "generally accepted."

"It was more the ongoing issues with the company that people are speaking out about."

The union said the Feb. 5 tentative agreement was rejected by 891 votes out of 1,751 cast — about 50.9 per cent. There were also 852 votes in favour of the deal and eight spoiled ballots. The union said 64.2 per cent of active members voted.

He said the railway faces no real pressure to negotiate an agreement that addresses employee concerns because of the government's threat of legislation.

Hackl also said arbitration presents its own risks because Ottawa selects the type of arbitration and appoints the decision-maker.

CN says it transports about $250 billion worth of goods annually for a wide range of business, including natural resources and consumer goods.

d Mongeau said Thursday.

Follow @RossMarowits on Twitter

Note to readers: This is a corrected story: A previous version misspelled 'Hackl' in the first reference

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