Union fund part of CN deal despite earlier opposition

Canadian National Railway Co. has agreed to pay into a union action fund as part of the 11th-hour deal reached with Unifor on Monday night — but not the same fund it had opposed on principle earlier in the negotiations.

CN confirmed Tuesday that it will contribute to a new, jointly run charity that will focus on “women and aboriginal causes.” Since the agreement still has to be ratified by its employees, the railway wouldn’t disclose how much it will contribute except to say that it’s not the same as the five cents per compensated hour that Unifor had originally demanded.

Earlier in the negotiations, talks nearly broke down over Unifor’s demand that CN contribute to its Canadian Community Fund, which CN called a “political and community action fund” that it wouldn’t give to on principle.

Canadian law allows unions to direct members’ dues to political causes, and CN said it wouldn’t let the union’s interests take precedence over the interests of its workers.

The Canadian Community Fund was created in a tentative agreement between Unifor and Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. earlier this month. Unifor president Jerry Dias said the participation of CP — whose CEO, Hunter Harrison, has a reputation for being aggressively anti-labour — should prove that the fund isn’t political.

“CP would never pay into a political fund,” he said. “Can you imagine Hunter Harrison, the cowboy of the railway industry, agreeing to that? I’ve never heard anything so foolish in my whole life.”

It appeared that the two sides had reached an impasse over this and other compensation-related demands. Last week, Unifor said it would begin holding strike votes across the country and CN responded by saying it would lock out workers unless a tentative agreement was struck by Monday night.

The details of that agreement won’t be released until the approximately 4,800 mechanical, intermodal and clerical workers represented by Unifor have the chance to vote on it.

However, Mr. Dias confirmed that the deal includes company contributions to a new charity that will “highlight serious women’s issues.”

“We are working together with CN to make positive inroads on women’s issues,” Mr. Dias said in an interview. “We’re very pleased.”

CN spokesman Mark Hallman said the new charity will be jointly funded and governed and will “support only philanthropic causes in Canada, with an emphasis on women and aboriginal causes.”

Throughout the negotiations, CN maintained that it wasn’t opposed to jointly supporting charitable causes but it wouldn’t pay into a fund that could be used for political purposes.

Mr. Dias, meanwhile, said CN was using the debate over the fund as a “diversion” to distract from the fact that it didn’t want to match Unifor’s agreement with CP.

Instead of matching the CP deal, CN wanted Unifor to agree to the pattern established in earlier negotiations with the United Steelworkers and Teamsters Canada.

Mr. Dias wouldn’t say which model the deal was based on, but did say he’s “absolutely pleased” with the outcome.

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