UPDATE 1-CN Rail-Unifor contract talks at impasse, strike vote likely

Wed Feb 18, 2015 4:13pm EST
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TORONTO Feb 18 (Reuters) - Protracted contract talks between Canadian National Railway Co and the union that represents 4,800 of its mechanical, clerical and intermodal staff are at an impasse, and the union says it is considering a strike vote.

The Montreal-based company said in a statement on Wednesday that it plans to make unilateral changes by Feb. 20 to the labor accord that covers workers represented by the Unifor union, if the union does not agree to a new deal by that time. The current contract expired on Dec. 31, 2014.

Unifor Rail Director Brian Stevens said union leadership will meet on Thursday in Montreal and is set to endorse moving forward on a strike vote. Stevens said that the process will take some weeks because the union has to get the support of its members, who are spread across some half a dozen locals.

Stevens, who criticized CN Rail's plan to unilaterally make changes to the existing labor agreement, said, "In our view, CN Rail is attempting to manufacture a labor relations crisis where one isn't needed."

CN Rail said it believes a negotiated deal remains the best solution and it continues to be committed to bargaining in good faith. CN said it has also offered to submit outstanding issues to binding arbitration.

To expedite repairs, CN said of one of the unilateral changes, it may ask employees to perform tasks within their competency at any time during their shift. CN said its trains currently face delays on occasion as strict rules do not allow workers under one classification to do the work of another except in extremely restricted situations.

"This change will allow CN to ask an employee to do a task within his or her competency, to speed up a repair or get a train moving without having to wait for the regular craftsperson to come from another task or location," said CN Rail in an email.

It said it also wants to lengthen the probationary period for some new hires. CN Rail said it will at the same time raise Unifor members' wages by 2 percent.

"While CN has signed agreements with higher wage patterns, those were reached before the economy started softening and reflected the value to CN of deals reached amicably," said CN.

A day-long strike at No. 2 Canadian railroad Canadian Pacific Railway ended on Monday after the company and union agreed to mediated arbitration. (Reporting by Euan Rocha; Editing by Grant McCool and Steve Orlofsky)