CN workers return, but fight over labor deal looms

By: | at 07:00 PM | Intermodal  

Canadian National Railway Co. said it was encouraged by the number of striking workers who were returning to work in the wake of a tentative contract agreement.

Neither CN nor the United Transportation Union had a detailed count on how many of the 2,800 conductors and switchmen had reported back to work, but union officials said they were not aware of any organized effort to keep picket lines up.

The union remains in a legal strike position pending the results of a month-long ratification vote on the tentative deal, but it has urged employees to go back to work until the vote results are known in late March.

UTU spokesman Frank Wilner said communications problems and confusion over the union’s directions may have contributed to some workers not returning. “We’re working to correct that,” he said.

The union hopes that by returning to work voluntarily, the workers will hold off a threat by the federal government to impose back-to-work legislation. Ottawa has put the bill on hold pending the ratification vote.

“We’re encouraged by what we’re seeing,” Canadian National spokesman Mark Hallman said.

Hallman said management crews brought in during the 15-day walkout will remain on the job, and the company declined to predict how long it would take to clear up service problems caused by the labor dispute.

Shipping groups had demanded Ottawa step in because of service problems.

The strike was made unusually confusing by a fight within the union’s leadership that could also play itself out during the ratification vote on the proposed one-year agreement with a three percent wage hike.

Rex Beatty, who headed a union negotiating team that was suspended by the UTU’s international headquarters during the strike, derided the tentative agreement as accepting company demands that he had rejected before the walkout began Feb. 10.

Beatty said in a letter to UTU members that he and the other suspended officials have gone to labor regulators to challenge their removal. If they win that challenge the tentative agreement could become void.

Beatty has also advised striking employees to return to their jobs, but he is also advising workers to sign membership cards with the Teamsters union so they can decide which union will represent them in the future.

The UTU’s international headquarters has accused Beatty of launching the strike without authorization in a bid to split the UTU in cooperation with Teamsters officials. The Teamsters already represents CN’s locomotive engineers.

The UTU negotiators who worked out the tentative agreement said having a one-year deal would allow the union to “regroup” and settle its internal issues before resuming negotiations with the company.

Results of the mail-in ballot are expected to be released on March 26. The union’s rules require only a simple majority vote for the deal to be approved. The UTU’s previous contract expired at the end of 2006. (Reuters)


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