02/19/2015 03:48 EST | Updated 04/21/2015 05:59 EDT

CN rail faces March strike deadline after talks with union break down

After approving a contract with CP Rail this morning, rail workers union Unifor has set a March date for a strike at rival CN.

After being ordered back to work by the federal government, CP workers will vote over the next two weeks on their contract, which the union says will improve working conditions and safety as well as offering better wages.

Unifor president Jerry Dias says the union wants a similar settlement for the 4,800 workers it represents at CN.

It has been in talks for five months with CN without a deal.  It is holding a strike vote and setting a strike deadline close to end of March to allow CN customers to make alternative arrangements.

"CN is trying to get a discounted settlement, by counting on the government to cut off collective bargaining with back to work legislation," said Dias.

Ottawa had threatened to legislate CP workers back on the job early this week, but that measure was headed off by a settlement reached late Saturday.

Other CN unions settled

At CN, Unifor represents approximately 4,800 employees in mechanical, intermodal, clerical and other areas of the company's business.

CN has already reached settlements with three other unions — the United Steelworkers, representing 3,000 maintenance-of-way employees; Teamsters Canada representing 1,800 locomotive engineers and Teamsters Canada-Rail Canada Traffic Controllers with 180 workers.

CEO Claude Mongeau says Unifor was offered a similar agreement with three per cent wage increases in each of three years, but the two sides reached a stumbling block over a demand for company contributions to a charitable fund.

Unifor and the company are engaged in a war of words over this fund, which the union says supports battered women’s shelters and community services, but the company says is a political as well as community fund.

"We are offering several alternatives, including binding arbitration, to keep the process moving forward toward resolution. We will continue to use our best efforts to reach an agreement with Unifor,” Mongeau said in a statement Wednesday.

CN said it plans to unilaterally modify some terms of its collective agreement with Unifor after talks with the union broke down this weekend.