Labour board to review safety concerns of potential rail strike, making delay likely

Board to review rail strike

The federal government has asked the Canada Industrial Relations Board to review whether a strike by rail workers would jeopardize Canadians' health and safety, adding a new element of uncertainty in the lead-up to potential job action.

Prompted by concerns from industry groups, the request to the tribunal by Labour Minister Seamus O'Regan will likely push back a potential work stoppage that could otherwise start in less than two weeks.

"It is unlikely a decision will come down by May 22," said labour tribunal spokesman Jean-Daniel Tardif in an email. "Written submissions alone will likely take longer."

The board is set to examine what, if any, critical shipments must continue in the event of a strike or lockout, with a would-be work stoppage on pause until a decision on that issue is made.

"Serious concerns have been raised about potential impacts to the health and safety of Canadians. It’s our duty to look into this," O'Regan said in a social media post on Thursday evening.

Last week, employees at the country's two main railways authorized a strike mandate that could see some 9,300 workers walk off the job as soon as May 22 if they are unable to reach new agreements.

The Teamsters Canada Rail Conference, which represents conductors, engineers and yard workers at Canadian National Railway Co. and Canadian Pacific Kansas City Ltd., has warned that a strike at both companies simultaneously would disrupt supply chains on an unprecedented scale.

Industry groups have sounded similar alarm bells.

The Freight Management Association of Canada said a stoppage would see shipments of critical commodities such as chlorine for water and gasoline for cities grind to a halt, potentially jeopardizing residents' safety.

"With the two national railways out, major Canadian ports like Vancouver, Montreal, Halifax and Saint John, N.B., will be clogged with containers, unable to function. Canadian exports like lumber, potash, coal and iron ore will have nowhere to go. Plants and mines will close and workers will be laid off," said association president John Corey in an email.

The labour minister referred the issue to the industrial relations board after receiving a letter from the Canadian Propane Association, according to two sources with knowledge of the matter. The Canadian Press is not naming the sources because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

The minister highlighted heavy fuel, propane, food and water treatment materials needed in remote communities "and throughout Canada," the tribunal's Jean-Daniel Tardif said of O'Regan's referral.

The tribunal has broad authority on essential services in the event of a potential work stoppage, said Maya Fernandez, an associate with Nelligan Law in Ottawa who specializes in labour and employment law.

Employment and Social Development Canada states on its website that the minister "can ask the CIRB to intervene to decide what activities need to continue during a strike or lockout, even if the parties have a maintenance of activities agreement."

The parties are "banned from beginning a strike or lockout" until a decision comes down, the government states.

It is unclear exactly how long the review could last, but Fernandez said recent cases reveal the possibility of a drawn-out process.

“It can drag on,” she said, pointing to a dispute between Montreal port employers and dockworkers.

In March, the tribunal dismissed a request from the employers to require employees to work during a strike, opening the gate to a job action after a six-month delay while the query was under consideration.

Canadian Pacific Kansas City said the "unknown" timeline adds more uncertainty to a bargaining process that is coming down to the wire.

"Our supply chains need stability, now more than ever. CPKC believes these negotiations need to be resolved in a timely manner to provide certainty for the Canadian economy and for North America’s supply chains," said spokesman Patrick Waldron.

CN Rail spokesman Jonathan Abecassis said the "current uncertainty" hanging over a possible work stoppage "must be resolved decidedly and as soon as possible for employees, customers, and Canadians who depend on rail to get them everyday essential goods."

Teamsters Canada said rail workers would comply with any order from the labour board, "should any safety-critical needs be identified."

"A delay is still possible but we are hopeful that the CIRB will move quickly," said spokesman Christopher Monette.

After a pause in talks this week, the two sides are set to return to the bargaining table next week.

In its letter to the minister, the Canadian Propane Association said a variety of regions rely on the gas for community hospitals, senior facilities, food production, emergency measures services and schools.

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