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CN gets strike notice; Ottawa preparing legislation to stop walkout

A CN locomotive goes through the CN Taschereau yard in Montreal, Saturday, Nov., 28, 2009. Canada's largest railway has received notice that one of its major unions could go on strike as early as Saturday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

A CN locomotive goes through the CN Taschereau yard in Montreal, Saturday, Nov., 28, 2009. Canada’s largest railway has received notice that one of its major unions could go on strike as early as Saturday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

LuAnn LaSalle, The Canadian Press

MONTREAL - The federal government says it is prepared to intervene and force CN workers back on the job should they go ahead with a walkout that could come as early as this weekend.

Labour Minister Kellie Leitch said Wednesday that a strike at Canada’s largest railway would hurt farmers and the forestry sector.

“Our Conservative government is taking action to protect Canada’s economy and Canadian grain farmers by indicating our intention to introduce legislation to make sure CN stays on track,” Leitch told a news conference.

Leitch announced the pending legislation after CN received notice that one of its major unions could go on strike as early as the first thing Saturday morning.

The strike notice came days after the Teamster union’s membership, which represents about 3,000 conductors and yard workers, rejected a tentative contract reached last fall.

The union gave its strike notice Tuesday evening after talks had resumed at the beginning of the week.

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall had called on Ottawa to step in before a strike even begins.

In a letter to Transport Minister Lisa Raitt, Wall said a strike would be unacceptable at a time when farmers are already having trouble moving a bumper crop of grain.

“Our agricultural producers deserve better than to be held hostage by one organization at a time when there is already tremendous frustration with the rail system’s failure to serve their needs adequately,” the premier wrote.

However, Leitch indicated that legislation would only be introduced should a strike be launched.

“We have a 72-hour strike notice that has been put in place. That comes into effect, they could go on strike as of Friday evening going into Saturday at one minute past midnight,” the minister said.

“And our intention would be to bring them back to work.”

CN said it transports about $250 billion worth of goods annually for a wide range of business, including natural resources and consumer goods.

A strike by competitor Canadian Pacific Railway (TSX:CP) in 2012 lasted for just days before Ottawa legislated workers back on the job.

The Teamsters union couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

CN spokesman Mark Hallman said the railway would prefer a negotiated settlement with its workers, but agreed with the government’s concern about economic impact of a strike.

“Clearly we want to maintain our operations,” Hallman said. “We don’t want to have a labour disruption because that would have an impact on our customers and the Canadian economy and we share that concern.”

Teamsters spokesman Stephane Lacroix said earlier Wednesday the union has a number of concerns, including the health and safety of workers.

Last month, there was a derailment and fire involving a CN train in northwestern New Brunswick.

But Lacroix said he had not given up on negotiations continuing, saying “we’re going to be successful in reaching an agreement with the employer before Saturday.”

Bob Ballantyne, of the Freight Management Association of Canada, said a strike by CN workers would ripple across the economy.

“There will be a lot of pressure on both parties to get this thing settled quickly,” said Ballantyne, president of the Ottawa-based organization.

— With files from CP in Ottawa and Regina

© The Canadian Press, 2014