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CP Rail crews hold strike vote, threatening CEO's bid for better labour relations

A Canadian Pacific Railway crew works on their train at the CP Rail yards in Calgary.


Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd.'s unionized train crews are holding a strike vote amid protracted contract talks that threaten chief executive officer Keith Creel's declared desire for better labour relations.

A strike mandate could strengthen the negotiating position of the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference, as CP works to clear a backlog of western grain under pressure from customers and the federal government.

"The employer continues to demand what we see as significant concessions in virtually all areas of the present collective agreement," the union said in a memo to members notifying them the voting will begin on March 16.

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Both sides have been in talks with the assistance of two federally appointed conciliators since Jan. 29.

If the approximately 2,600 engineers and conductors approve the strike action, CP could face a walkout by late April, a setback for Mr. Creel's stated goal of improving ties with the union that has gone on strike twice since 2012. The company would also be in a legal position to lock out employees, according to labour laws.

Most industries, including miners, retailers and car makers, rely on railways to move their goods and raw materials. The federal government has moved quickly to end – or head off – recent rail stoppages.

CP train crews and other employees are feeling bruised by four years of former CEO Hunter Harrison's efforts to turn around an underperforming company, including layoffs, cuts and a disciplinary policy union members call harsh.

"Over the last four years, we've had some feathers that have been ruffled, so part of my focus has been to reconnect with employees and also reconnect with our labour unions to ensure that the things we didn't get right in the past we can get right as we go forward," Mr. Creel said in April.

Mr. Creel has held several meetings with employees and labour leaders since succeeding Mr. Harrison as CEO in January, 2017, and implemented a disciplinary procedure that relies less on suspensions and dismissals. In 2017, CP reached labour deals with 600 clerical workers represented by the Steelworkers, track workers represented by the Teamsters and the police association.

Mr. Creel last year sought a one-year contract extension with the train crews in order to "give us time to build some trust between the parties." But union members in November rejected the deal, and the collective agreement expired at the end of 2017.

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But Mr. Creel has also taken positions union members loathe, vowing to continue CP's practice of using managers and office staff to operate locomotives in a work stoppage. And Mr. Creel lobbied for and won legislation that allows for the installation of in-cab video cameras, which the Teamsters say is an invasion of privacy.

CP did not respond to two requests for comment. A union official was unavailable.

CP's profit in 2017 reached $2.4-billion, up by $1-billion since 2014, even as sales were little changed over the same period.

"Profits seem to be followed by even more profits, and their forecast is for continued robust traffic levels [and a] lower operating ratio resulting in record profits. There is no reasonable explanation for the employer to continue seeking concessions from their employees, you, the member," said the union memo, dated March 12.

The Teamsters are also in talks with CP rival Canadian National Railway Co. for a contract for 1,700 locomotive engineers. CN's 3,000 conductors, who are Teamsters but work under a separate agreement, ratified a three-year contract in August.

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