Via Rail continuing negotiations as strike deadline looms

TORONTO – Via Rail and the union representing some of its workers are continuing to negotiate in a Montreal hotel in an attempt to reach a deal before the union’s midnight strike deadline.

“We remain hopeful,” Via spokeswoman Mylene Belanger said Thursday. “Talks are continuing and we are prepared to keep talking until the deadline.”

Earlier in the day, the Canadian Auto Workers union said talks had stalled because Via attempted to circumvent the negotiation process by communicating directly with its employees.

“There’s no chance to reach an agreement by the deadline,” said Bob Orr, assistant to the president of the CAW.

“Via has chosen to bargain with the members and not with the bargaining committee. We’re sitting in a hotel and we’re reading about what they’re saying to the membership.”

But later in the evening, the union confirmed that negotiations had resumed but said the two sides were still far apart on a number of major issues.

“Talks are taking place at the committee level, and have been between high level officials over the past few hours, but we are still miles apart on key issues,” Orr said.

The union represents about 2,000 of Via’s customer service employees, as well as on-board service and maintenance workers at the passenger rail company.

Via Rail presented its latest proposal on Wednesday, offering wage increases of two per cent every year for three years.

However, the offer also includes higher employee contributions to the pension plan that the union says would result in members taking home less money, not more.

“What the company wants to do is increase employees’ pension contributions substantially over the next three years,” Orr said.

The union also objected to plans that would slash pension benefits for new Via employees and the rolling back of income protections for seasonal workers.

Via said its employees need to contribute more to the pension because it currently faces a $419-million deficit.

“There are no major concessions that are being asked of current full-time employees, except to have them help maintain the current pension plan by increasing their contributions,” said Belanger.

Via president and chief executive Marc Laliberte said the company’s pension deficit is putting pressure on its bottom line.

“This offer, in particular the parts related to pensions, will help ensure the sustainability of both our company and the pension plans, and that’s in the long-term best interests of our employees,” Laliberte said in a statement.

Via Rail laid out a contingency plan last week in the event of a strike. The plan would see management offer basic railway services, including daily trips in the morning and at the end of the day on the Quebec City to Windsor, Ont., corridor.

Long-distance trips and service to remote locations would be provided once a week.

Customers would be able to refund their tickets prior to the train’s departure time.