(Adds CN Rail comment)
TORONTO, Feb 19 (Reuters) - A union that represents 4,800 workers at Canadian National Railway Co said on Thursday it would not accept government interference in its contract talks with the country's No. 1 railroad operator.
Unifor leaders said on a conference call they would proceed with a vote to strike. The remarks came after CN said Wednesday it would unilaterally change a labor pact covering mechanical, clerical and intermodal staff represented by Unifor by Feb. 20, if a new accord wasn't agreed by that time.
"We are not looking for a dispute, but it is clear to us that CN is," Unifor President Jerry Dias said. He accused the railway of forcing a stand-off in the hopes that the government would step in to avert a strike and force the two parties into a binding arbitration process.
Dias said Unifor was not going to accept a government settlement, but declined to say what recourse the union would have if the Canadian government uses back-to-work legislation in the event of a strike.
CN said on Wednesday that it had already offered to submit all outstanding issues to a binding arbitration process.
The union said the vote to strike would begin as early as next week and take about three weeks to complete. It plans to set a strike deadline close to the end of March to allow CN customers to make alternative arrangements.
"CN is trying to get a discounted settlement, by counting on the government to cut off collective bargaining with back to work legislation," said Dias. "Companies like CN should not be leaning on government to interfere in collective bargaining."
CN, in an email on Thursday, said its current offer would ensure that Unifor employees would remain the highest paid of their trade in the Canadian rail industry. It called Unifor's strike vote move unfortunate and unnecessary.
The company said its principles will not be shaken by a month-long process to seek a strike mandate that only serves to raise uncertainty in the company's customer base.
CN Rail shares were down less than a percent at C$87.71 in afternoon trading on the Toronto Stock Exchange. (Reporting by Euan Rocha; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Christian Plumb)