OTTAWA - Barely 12 hours after the House of Commons forced through legislation ordering CP Rail workers back to work, Labour Minister Lisa Raitt asked unionized employees to voluntarily end their strike.
The turn of events came Wednesday as Bill C-39, the third back-to-work legislation tabled by the Conservative government in the last year, stalled momentarily in the Senate.
The upper chamber is expected to hear briefly from witnesses Thursday before passing the legislation, setting up a likely Friday timeline for a return of freight service.
For Raitt, that's not fast enough. She had hoped the trains would be moving by Thursday morning.
Conservatives claim the strike is costing the Canadian economy $75 million to $80 million a day.
The minister accused the Liberal minority in the Senate of obstructing the back-to-work bill and said she wants 4,800 striking members of the Teamsters union and CP Rail to voluntarily get the trains rolling again almost immediately.
"I'm asking the Teamsters and CP Rail to return to work starting from now in 12 hours," Raitt said following the afternoon question period in the House of Commons.
"As soon as they can get back on the rails, I'm asking them to voluntarily return to work."
An official with the Teamsters, asked for reaction, said it was the first he'd heard of Raitt's pitch and would not immediately comment.
Some 220 rail traffic controllers and 4,200 various locomotive engineers, conductors, yardmen and others walked off the job last Wednesday after talks broke down.
The union subsequently claimed that the Conservative government's quick avowal later the same day to introduce back-to-work legislation poisoned the atmosphere and gave the company no incentive to return to good-faith bargaining.
The bill was introduced when Parliament returned on Monday from a week-long break, and the Harper government used its majority to force the legislation through the Commons in a single, 14-hour marathon that ended just before 1:30 a.m. Wednesday morning.
By noon Wednesday, Raitt was already chafing that the bill did not appear set to speed through the Conservative-dominated Senate in a single sitting.
"The clock is ticking and it is on their conscience," she said of Liberal senators.
But Liberals said the party agreed to cut the usual 48-hour waiting period in half, and that the bill would be dealt with in short order. Indeed, when the government introduced the bill in the Senate on Wednesday afternoon it asked for — and received — unanimous consent to deal with the legislation at the next sitting: Thursday.
"It's not being delayed by anybody," said Bob Rae, the interim Liberal leader.
"We do want to make sure that witnesses can appear and that people are allowed to have their say. But there's no desire on our part that there should be any delay."
Raitt, representatives of the company, the union, and a couple of academic experts are expected to speak to the Senate in 45-minute segments Thursday before the final votes are held and the bill receives royal assent from the Governor General.
The political she-said, he-said leaves thousands of CP Rail customers hanging for another day, but with the certain prospect of freight service resuming by the weekend.
"Both union and management at CP forget that it is farmers' money that helps pay their wages and yet it is farmers that suffer financially when they can't negotiate settlements in good faith," Richard Phillips, the executive director of the Grain Growers of Canada, said in a release.
The official Opposition New Democrats opposed the back-to-work bill and also want the Senate abolished, leaving them Wednesday crying a pox on both the Conservative and Liberal houses.
Nathan Cullen, the NDP House leader, said workers have had their rights stripped away by the Conservatives and yet now Raitt is seeking a voluntary compromise.
"She's created a circumstance in which that is impossible," said Cullen, who argues CP Rail and the union should have been left to work out their differences in free collective bargaining.
As for the temporary Senate impasse, Cullen was not sympathetic.
"Taking lessons on accountability and democracy from the Conservatives? Particularly with the Senate, which they stuffed to a new record high of 26 (appointees) in one year?" he said.
"For them to now complain about the unaccountability of the Senate is a bit rich."