Make rail transport an essential service, say crop commissions

Wheat and barley commissions say crop sector can’t afford to have strikes ‘every few years’

Farmers dump bags of corn grain in front of the Papineau riding office of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Montreal, as they protest the lack of propane due to the CN strike, on Nov. 25, 2019.
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The longest rail strike in a decade is over, but the need for a new way to deal with rail disruptions is as pressing as ever, say Alberta Wheat and Alberta Barley.

“The threat of strikes affecting grain movement is a recurring theme every few years and we need a long-term solution to ensure Canada can meet its export commitments,” Alberta Barley chair David Bishop said in a news release after a tentative deal was reached between CN and striking workers on Nov. 26.

“We still get questions from international customers about the grain backlogs of 2017-18, so we need to have a national conversation about how we can assure them that we have a reliable supply chain,” added Gary Stanford, chair of Alberta Wheat.

The tentative deal, announced just as this edition was going to press, still has to be ratified. But the effects will linger for some time, said the two crop commissions.

“Unfortunately, significant damage has already been done to farmers as a result of the work stoppage,” they said. “It will take time for CN to return to normal levels of service.”

The two farm groups said the federal government should consider making rail transport of grain an essential service.

“Canada’s longshoremen are already prevented from engaging in strikes that would impact the loading of grain vessels and the commissions believe those same provisions should be extended to rail.”

The eight-day strike, which put about 3,200 unionized workers on the picket line, affected not only grain movement, but also shipments of oil, potash, coal and manufactured goods to ports and the United States.

The striking conductors and yard workers had been demanding improved working conditions, including worker rest breaks.

The railway is highly profitable and could afford to improve safety measures, said the National Farmers Union, which supported negotiations over an imposed settlement.

“Nine CN rail workers have been killed on the job in the last two years — this is unacceptable,” the NFU said in a news release. “CN’s cost-cutting measures are padding shareholders’ pockets at the expense of workers’ lives and health.”

The tentative deal brought relief for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government, which was under pressure to intervene and stop the strike. The day before the tentative deal was struck, farmers facing propane shortages dumped wet corn in front of Trudeau’s local Quebec office.

“Now we can hope that things can get back to normal in quick fashion. It’s cost a lot of money to farmers already,” said Markus Haerle, chairman of the Grain Farmers of Ontario.

The strike left at least 35 vessels waiting at the West Coast to load grain shipments, said Mark Hemmes, president of Quorum Corp., which monitors the movement of Prairie grain for the federal government.

Many of the grain-handling facilities on the West Coast are serviced only by CN, he noted.

The north shore of Port of Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet is home to a major potash and coal export terminal as well as grain terminals operated by Cargill and Richardson International that are normally serviced only by CN.

A “trickle of cars” from CP was reaching the grain terminals, but they were “for all intents and purposes shut down” during the strike, said Wade Sobkowich, executive director of the Western Grain Elevator Association.

Teamsters Canada president Francois Laporte praised the federal government for allowing the workers to reach a negotiated settlement with CN.

“Previous governments routinely violated workers’ right to strike when it came to the rail industry,” he said. “This government remained calm and focused on helping parties reach an agreement, and it worked.”

But the impact will linger, said Bob Masterson, chief executive of the Chemistry Industry Association of Canada.

“This is great news but there’s still a number of difficult days ahead,” said Masterson.

Some plants producing hazardous chemicals had slowed production during the strike, he said. Based on past rail disruptions, CN is likely to start moving critical commodities first — such as propane for farms and homes and chlorine for drinking water — leaving other shippers to wait days or weeks for service, Masterson said.

Miners were facing hefty costs due to lost sales and plant disruptions and it could take a week for every day of disrupted service to restore normal operations, said Brendan Marshall, vice-president of economic and northern affairs at the Mining Association of Canada.

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