Possible rail strike adds to Liberal headaches

A pending Canadian Pacific Railway strike could pose problems for the Trudeau government in light of an ongoing grain backlog in Western Canada.

Conductors and locomotive workers have voted 94 percent in favour of going on strike. This authorization means up to 3,000 workers could walk off the job as early as April 21. The workers’ collective agreement expired last year.

The union has said employees want more predictable schedules to combat fatigue, among other demands.

The pending strike would be the third time in six years CP workers will have walked off the job.

It’s also the second time workers at one of this country’s Class I railways have threatened to walk off the job when millions of tonnes of prairie grain is stuck. In 2013, the then-Conservative government threatened to impose back-to-work legislation on Canadian National Railway workers, in part because of grain movement concerns.

It’s unclear whether the Trudeau government will authorize back-to-work legislation given this year’s transportation challenges.

While many challenges this year around grain handling have been because of service shortfalls by CN, CP has also faced criticism.

In late March, it was estimated more than $500 million worth of prairie grain was stuck on CN lines.

For most of this crop year, most of the grain moved in Western Canada had been on CP lines.

The latest report for week 35 from the Ag Transport Coalition shows CN and CP supplied a combined 69 percent of rail cars ordered. Each railroad also supplied 69 percent of the orders they received individually.

It’s only the second time during the course of the previous six weeks that CP had supplied more than 60 percent of ordered cars.

The pending CP rail strike adds yet another layer of complications to a file already causing the Liberal government much grief.

Transport Minister Marc Garneau’s promised overhaul of Bill C-49 remains in parliamentary limbo after the Senate made 19 proposed changes to the legislation. The bill goes beyond the transportation of commodities by rail and includes reforms to other modes of transportation — including air travel.

Garneau has said at least one amendment, one tied to the length of time a plane loaded with passengers can stay on the tarmac, will be rejected. The remaining changes, which include granting the Canadian Transportation Authority own-motion powers, are under review.

Own-motion powers would allow the agency to investigate service delays without a formal complaint. A similar amendment was voted down by the Liberals on the House of Commons Transportation Committee last autumn.

Shippers, CN and CP have said Bill C-49 as it stands now would not have prevented the shipping challenges faced in Western Canada this year.

The federal transport minister said he is “seized” with the issue and understands there is a significant backlog in Western Canada. Shippers have said they want the legislation passed before Parliament rises for its summer recess.

The pending CP strike also comes as Ottawa is embroiled in an escalating fight between Alberta and British Columbia over the proposed Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. Alberta argued the project must be approved to ensure the province’s oil can get to market. B.C. insists the project poses too great an environmental risk to its coastline.

The federal government has claimed jurisdiction over the project, an opinion the B.C. government disputes.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said the pipeline expansion will be built, insisting the project is in Canada’s best interest. The federal government approved the project in 2016.

Kinder Morgan, the company behind the expansion project, said April 8 it was putting all non-essential spending for the project on hold.

With a battle over bitumen boiling over in the Prairies, the last thing the Liberal government needs is another hurdle restricting the movement of Canadian goods to market.

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