Canadian Pacific Railway shutdown 'one more nail in the coffin' for Manitoba businesses: advocates

As the Canadian Pacific Railway shuts down over a labour dispute, Manitoba agriculture and manufacturing organizations are calling on the federal government to intervene to avert a possible death blow to businesses.

Conductors, engineers, yard workers ready to negotiate and get back to work: union

Manitoba's agriculture and manufacturing industries, among others, have expressed concern about a potential work stoppage at Canadian Pacific Railway. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

As the Canadian Pacific Railway shuts down over a labour dispute, Manitoba agriculture and manufacturing organizations are calling on the federal government to intervene to avert a possible death blow to businesses.

The Teamsters Canada Rail Conference, which represents some 3,000 engineers, conductors, yard workers and other train employees, issued a release just before midnight Saturday, saying a lockout was being initiated by management at the Calgary-based railway.

But hours later the company put out a release stating that while CP was still engaged in contract talks facilitated by federal mediators, the union "withdrew its services and issued a news release misrepresenting the status of the talks." It added that CP was working with its customers to wind down its operations across Canada.

Ron Koslowsky, the Manitoba vice president of Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, says any kind of work stoppage is a punishing blow to businesses after the COVID-19 pandemic, weather disruptions, the trucker convoy and the ongoing war in Ukraine.

"On top of everything else, the last thing we needed was yet one more nail in the coffin so to speak, and the rail strike or the potential strike coming up on the weekend, we just can't believe that this is happening," he said.

"This is our lifeblood, the movement of goods and inputs of goods back and forth. And it strangles the jobs, it constricts the arteries of our business and the wealth, ultimately, of our country."

CP Rail issued a 72-hour notice on Wednesday to the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference of its plan to lock out its employees on Sunday, if the union and the company were unable to come to a settlement or agree to binding arbitration.

However on Thursday, CP Rail said it received strike notice from the union representing its engineers, conductors and other train employees.

The two sides are at odds over 26 outstanding issues, including wages, benefits and pensions.

But Koslowsky believes another side must step in to avoid further supply chain issues — government.

"We feel the governments at all levels, but certainly the federal government, as it relates to borders or rail lines, must jump in to make sure that this thing does not become a problem, that does not lead to a disruption of service, whatever that takes," he said.

For the manufacturers and exporters he represents, railways are key to staying in business because 50 per cent of manufactured goods are transported by train.

WATCH | Chuck Fossay on the labour disruption's impacts:

CP Rail shutdown could impact grain producers: farmer

5 months ago
Duration 0:36
Keystone Agricultural Producers spokesperson Charles Fossay is worried the labour disruption will have unintended consequences for Manitoba farmers and beyond.

Any kind of work stoppage or labour action also has Manitoba farmers worried, according to Chuck Fossay, the director of grains, oilseeds and pulses with Keystone Agricultural Producers.

Fossay, who farms outside of Starbuck, Man., is calling on the federal government not to delay in intervening in the labour dispute.

"Every day that we lose, it just impacts and moves the backlogs. All the grain that we're moving and goods that have to come into the country just backs everything up more and more," he said.

Workers protesting in Winnipeg

On Sunday, CP Rail workers in Winnipeg took to the streets to protest what they say are unfair working conditions.

Virgil Siedler, the local chairman for conductors at the union, says the people he represents have to deal with a "toxic work environment."

"They don't want to bargain for an increase in quality of life … This is our one opportunity to make our voice heard so people know what we're dealing with," he said.

Virgil Siedler, chairman for conductors at Teamsters Canada Rail Conference 76 in Winnipeg, walks the line outside of Canadian Pacific Railway on Sunday. (Marina von Stackelberg/CBC)

A key sticking point in the contract negotiations are pensions, which Siedler says the company wants to cap.

The union says it's ready to talk through the contract with CP Rail, and knows how much people rely on the railway.

"We do understand that, yeah, the fact that it is having an impact, but we are willing to negotiate. And as soon as the railway is willing to negotiate a fair contract, we'll go back to work," Siedler said.

Back in Starbuck, Fossay wants to see railways declared essential services, similar to police, firefighters and paramedics.

"It's a very important part of our transportation system and the way that we move our goods across the country."

Both Koslowsky and Fossay are concerned about Canada's future trade relationships if supply chain issues continue.

"If we lose our reputation, we lose our credibility as a reliable supplier to our customers," Koslowsky said.

However, Barry Prentice doesn't believe the strike will last long simply because the federal government will not permit it.

Prentice, a professor in supply chain management at the University of Manitoba and the Transport Institute's former director, says commodities such as grains and fertilizer will be affected on the export side.

University of Manitoba transportation expert Barry Prentice does not expect the strike will linger, but if it does that could mean major issues. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC News)

He says the public doesn't always appreciate the importance of railways, which account for about half of all freight movement in Canada.

"It's a very important part of our transportation network and, of course, very important to our export network and our customers that are expecting prices to come on rail," Prentice said. "So we can't diminish the amount of it. And even though there's still one railway operating, it's still a major setback."

He doesn't believe the strike will have a significant impact on consumers unless it lingers.

"If it's all over and done within 10 days, then it's more of a hiccup than a panic," Prentice said. "But if it lasts and carries on for weeks on end, oh, it could be a very big issue indeed."

With files from Karen Pauls and Lauren Donnelly