By Solarina Ho
TORONTO (Reuters) - Contract negotiations between Canadian National Railway and the Teamsters union appear to have stalled as CN demands changes that union officials say could jeopardize the health and safety of workers.
The Teamsters Canada Rail Conference (TCRC) union, which represents about 3,300 conductors, trainmen, yardmen and traffic coordinators, said on Monday that CN Rail, Canada's biggest railway, is seeking to have members work longer hours, perform more tasks when alone and have less rest time between trips.
"The railway's attitude will more than likely lead to a labor dispute," union spokesman Roland Hackl said in a statement on Monday.
CN spokesman Mark Hallman said CN does not comment on ongoing labor talks, but said none of its proposals would compromise the health and safety of its workers in any way.
"Indeed, it is our opinion that CN's proposals would positively affect the health and safety of our employees," Hallman said.
The Teamsters previous contract with CN expired on July 22. The disputed issues in negotiations for a new contract are particularly sensitive in the aftermath of the July 6 Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, train disaster, which killed 47 people and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.
The calamity occurred when a runaway train operated by Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, which was hauling 72 tanker cars filled with crude oil, derailed and exploded in the middle of a small Quebec town. It was North America's deadliest rail disaster in two decades.
While officials have yet to make a final determination of the cause of the tragedy, safety has since become a significant component in the debate on rail industry practices.
"The Lac-Mégantic tragedy can't be in vain: the health and safety of workers and the public are not negotiable. Period," Hackl said.
Union officials said they expect a high crew turnover in the coming years as workers retire. They said that CN plans to increase the workload of remaining employees rather than hire new workers to replace the retirees.
A strike was narrowly avoided during CN-union negotiations in 2010, when health and safety issues were also sticking points in contract talks.
(Editing by Jeffrey Hodgson; and Peter Galloway)