Unionized workers at both Canadian National Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway have voted in favor of giving their union a strike mandate if labor talks fail, the Canadian Auto Workers union.

The strike deadline at CN, the country’s biggest railway, is Jan. 25, and the deadline at CP, Canada’s No. 2 carrier, is set for Feb. 8, after contracts expired Dec. 31.

The union, which began talks in October, said it represents 2,100 mechanical services workers at CP and 4,300 employees at CN, a figure the company puts at 3,975. Unionized staff at CN do clerical, shopcraft, intermodal and truck driving work.

Talks have been “challenging” with both railways, which are demanding concessions from workers, CAW President Ken Lewenza said in a statement.

Negotiations on work rule, lifestyle, benefits and overtime issues are far from agreement, said Bob Chernecki, assistant to Lewenza.

“There’s a lot of work here that has to get done. Can we do it? Right now, I could only make the comment that I’m guarded,” he said.

“We’re absolutely determined that they’re (workers) going to share in the success of these two corporations.”

Talks with CP are under way in Montreal and negotiations with CN resume there on Sunday, Chernecki said.

CP said it has trained 1,200 managers and has a contingency plan in place to fully operate the railway if a labor dispute occurs, but it remains optimistic for a negotiated settlement.

Additional talks are scheduled for later in January, said spokesman Mark Seland.

“We remain optimistic that we can reach an amicable settlement with the union without labor disruption,” said CN spokesman Mark Hallman. A strike mandate is a normal part of the collective bargaining process, he added.

CN, which operates in eight Canadian provinces and 16 U.S. states, said a five-day strike in 2009 by locomotive engineers working in Canada cost the company about C$10 million.

The railway, expected to report fourth-quarter results Jan. 25, said in October that it was well-positioned to finish the year on “a solid note”.

CP said on Wednesday that it planned to spend C$1.05 billion on capital projects in 2011, about 25 percent more than last year.

The company, which has lines across Canada and in the Upper Midwest and Northeastern United States, reports quarterly results Jan. 26. It was not immediately available for comment. (Reuters)