April 19, 2007: by Courtney Tower, Journal of Commerce : Rail operations at the Port of Vancouver were returning to normal Thursday as Canadian National Railway lifted its lockout of striking union employees after federal back-to-work legislation was signed into law.
The United Transportation Union said its members will return to work today by 6:55 p.m. Eastern Time (3:55 p.m. Pacific Time).
A total of 2,800 conductors and yard workers represented by the UTU called off rotating strikes at eight locations in British Columbia and Ontario. They gave written assurances that no strikes would be held while negotiations with CN resumed under a federal arbitrator.
The back-to-work legislation takes effect Thursday night, 24 hours following approval by both houses of Parliament Wednesday and formal final approval, known as royal assent.
The law bans strikes and lockouts while restarting negotiations with a 90-day deadline for a contract agreement. If no accord is reached, the arbitrator will impose a settlement -- either the union's or railroad's final offer.
"It is obvious that in the event one side holds out for the 'whole ball of wax,' that side does so at its peril," said UTU vice presidents John Armstrong and Bob Sharpe in a letter to union members. "In such a situation, it is virtually certain that the arbitrator would select the other side's final offer that would appear to the arbitrator as more reasonable.
They added that the 'final offer selection' process makes it "very difficult, if not impossible, to break new ground, or correct serious problems in a collective bargaining relationship. But it is also less likely that the employer will be able to successfully fragment our national collective bargaining structure."
About 300 workers had picketed terminals after members of the UTU on April 10 rejected a tentative one-year agreement that was reached in February following a costly two-week national strike. That proposal gave employees a three-percent pay increase and a C$1,000 (US$870) bonus but otherwise extended the previous contract agreement that had expired Dec. 31, 2006.
Glen Gower, chairman of a union local in the Toronto area, testified before the Senate on Wednesday that about 80 percent of the Cleveland-based UTU's members in Canada had signed cards saying they wanted to be represented by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, also based in the United States. Gower and all UTU local chairpersons from the midwestern province of Manitoba to the Atlantic coast had signed a letter directing UTU leadership to order a return to work and to resume negotiating with CN. They promised no strikes "for the foreseeable future," he said.
"We are not taking direction from the [U.S.] international [UTU headquarters], Gower said. "We don't feel that they speak on our behalf…we don't know who will be negotiating for us."
There is an application by the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference, before the Canada Industrial Relations Board to supplant the UTU as representative of the conductors and yard workers. The Teamsters also represent other CN employees.
Gower said that workers also want CN to address issues of working conditions. He said that CN's push for efficiency has stressed workers and created unsafe operating conditions.
Canadian National has argued that workers must be more flexible in hours of work and related working conditions.