Via Rail optimistic strike can be averted despite weekend deadline

The Canadian Press ~ The News
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With a strike deadline looming this weekend, Via Rail is expressing hope about the chances of hammering out a new deal with the union representing more than 2,000 of its workers.

The passenger rail operator also pledged Friday to keep trains running, even in the event of a work stoppage, with the peak summer travel months around the corner.

The Canadian Auto Workers union set a strike deadline of 11:59 p.m. Sunday night after seeing the company's latest contract proposal.

``The parties are at the table and have committed to stay there,' said Via spokesman Malcolm Andrews.

``We're optimistic there will be an agreement which will ensure that train service continues.'

Via says it has a backup plan if weekend negotiations break down and there is a walkout.

``In the eventuality there is no agreement, we have a contingency plan that would ensure that Canadian travellers have basic train service on all Via routes across Canada _ if needed,' he said.

In a message to its preferred customers, Via says that in the event of a work stoppage, ticket purchases will be available only at viarail.ca.

It says passengers must have a valid booking and present their Via ticket or e-booking confirmation when boarding.

The employees have been without a collective agreement since December 2009.

Andrews noted that the last time there were negotiations with the same union in 2007, a deal was reached and a work stoppage was averted.

But the union complained Friday that Via had taken a tough attitude as negotiations continued in Montreal with the help of federally appointed mediators.

Earlier this month the workers _ including ticket vendors and maintenance employees _ voted in favour of job action to back contract demands.

CAW representative Bob Chernecki says the attitude of the Crown corporation has changed while the two sides haggle over issues such as wages, benefits and pensions.

``The corporation continues to have an onslaught of concessionary demands . . . that cover everything from vacation to bidding to wage rates,' he said.

Chernecki called the tougher negotiations ``unusual' and ``troublesome' and added that, in the past, labour relations have been largely positive.

This time, the union said in a statement, Via management has had a ``take-it-or-leave-it' attitude.

``I don't know whether it's a sign of the times in terms of what's happened in the economy,' Chernecki told The Canadian Press.

``Or whether it's a change in leadership at Via, or whether people at senior levels of management think somehow they're going to bully the workers and the union into doing something they don't want to do.'

In July 2009, locomotive engineers at Via Rail went on strike, effectively shutting down the bulk of national passenger rail service across Canada for a number of days.

But Via says that happened because, in that work stoppage, the people driving the trains were on strike.

Organizations: Via Rail, Canadian Auto Workers union, Canadian Press

Geographic location: Canada, Montreal

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