OTTAWA - A day-old strike at Canadian Pacific Railway screeched to an unexpected halt Monday with the company and its union agreeing to binding arbitration just hours before employees were to be legislated back to work.
Labour Minister Kellie Leitch was on the verge of introducing a bill to end the labour dispute when she suddenly emerged from the House of Commons to reveal the two sides had beaten her to it.
"The strike is over," Leitch declared. "I'm incredibly happy that both sides put the interests of Canadians and the Canadian economy first."
The minister said she welcomed the sudden willingness by the railway (TSX:CP) and the union to resume talks through a mediator — a development that had seemed impossible just hours earlier.
Asked whether the threat of a back-to-work bill had negated the rights of workers to strike, Leitch played down its impact, noting that employees already had the opportunity to strike.
"We have not tabled this legislation," she said. "We have allowed the parties to meet, to talk and to come to what they think will be the best agreement."
Earlier Monday, as the House of Commons debated the merits of the back-to-work bill, Leitch said the strike could have cost the Canadian economy more than $200 million in lost GDP every week.
She acknowledged there were still numerous issues on the table, but said the goal was to get service back to 100 per cent by Tuesday morning.
The strike by 3,300 locomotive engineers and other CP train workers began Sunday.
Effects of the stoppage were felt Monday as the strike disrupted service on several Montreal-area commuter train routes, services used by an estimated 19,000 people every day.
The union chose the arbitration and mediation process to avoid being forced back to work by the government, its president said Monday.
"Our preference is to negotiate these improvements through collective bargaining, and the worst thing that could happen is a legislated process," Teamsters president Douglas Finnson said in a statement.
"These issues are far too important to our members to have a legislated process decide the issue."
The Teamsters said the dispute resolution process will address issues at the heart of the conflict, including its concerns about worker fatigue. Train service, it added, would resume Tuesday, but only after it had ensured workers were well rested.
In a statement Monday, CP Rail chief executive Hunter Harrison said the company would have preferred a negotiated deal, though he noted the decision brings both sides back to the table.
"This is the right thing to do at this time," Harrison said.
On Sunday, Peter Edwards, CP's vice-president of labour relations, said he supported the government's bill after negotiations failed.
NDP labour critic Alexandre Boulerice said he doesn't believe the threat of back-to-work legislation helped either side in the dispute.
"The Conservatives always have the same answers: to attack the workers, attack their rights — the constitutional rights — and attack their unions," Boulerice said.
He hoped the arbitrator would find a solution to the "extreme fatigue" of CP's drivers.
Liberal labour critic David McGuinty said the government's willingness to legislate employees back to work signals their contempt for the right to collective bargaining.
"Collective bargaining is a Supreme Court of Canada-upheld right, as recently as several months ago, in a landmark decision. It's something we believe in. It's something most Canadians understand," he said.
"It's not allowing collective bargaining to take its course. It's about trying to single out a group, trying to blame it."