Farm groups asking Ottawa to intervene in looming rail strike

Prairie grain farmers are urging the federal government to take action to prevent workers with CP Rail from going on strike as early as this weekend. A strike now would only add to the problems with grain movement this crop year.

Around 3,000 conductors and engineers who are members in the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference, as well as 360 signal maintainers in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, have given the railway 72-hour strike notice, meaning they could walk off the job after midnight on Saturday morning.

CP sent a notice to its customers on Wednesday, saying it had “commenced and will continue to execute a safe and structured shutdown of its train operations in Canada,” including an immediate embargo on shipments originating in Canada, as well as shipments from the U.S. billed for Canadian destinations.

“I hope the government is ready to quickly — very quickly — resolve the issue if it comes to a strike. We can’t afford that. We can’t afford to have our reputation put in jeopardy by another hiccup in our logistics system,” Cam Dahl, president of Cereals Canada told RealAgriculture.

CP warns looming strike would “severely impact” rail service

With many western Canadian farmers only having access to one rail line, a strike would cause major cash-flow issues for farmers who rely on service from CP, explaines Kevin Bender, who farms in the Sylvan Lake-Bentley-area of Alberta and chairs the Alberta Wheat Commission, in a joint news release from the Alberta wheat and barley producer groups.

As Dahl noted, a strike would be another blow to Canada’s reputation as a reliable export supplier, adding to the existing problems with grain movement over the last four months.

“We need immediate government intervention to make sure that an already difficult situation with grain movement by rail does not worsen,” said Jason Lenz, Alberta Barley chair and Bentley, Alberta-area farmer. “The movement of grain is so essential to the Canadian economy that it should never be disrupted by strike action. But unfortunately, we see labour disputes almost every year.”

The Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association is echoing those concerns.

“Wheat growers have suffered through the abysmal rail transportation problems this past growing season and now may have to face a strike by CP Rail. This is making a bad problem even worse,” noted Wheat Growers president and Pense, Saskatchewan-based farmer Levi Wood.

“…our markets are questioning whether or not we can meet the buyer demands. Our federal government needs to step up and assure our buyers that we can meet the global needs,” added Daryl Fransoo, farmer at Meota, Saskatchewan.

Transport Minister Marc Garneau has been in contact with CP’s executive this week, but was non-committal when asked whether the government is considering back-to-work legislation.

“Remember that we are a party that does believe in a collective bargaining process and this is a natural process that occurs between companies and the unions and so we’re cognizant of that fact. We’re also cognizant of the fact that this is a situation that does have important implications with respect to the movement of – not only grain- but all other commodities as well,” Garneau told a scrum of reporters on Tuesday. “So we’re following it very closely and we hope that the two sides will negotiate in good faith and work hard at it and not give it up until they find a solution.”

As of Friday, CP said the Teamsters union had 108 outstanding demands, which would cost more than a quarter billion dollars over the next three years — an average increase of 24 percent per year. The IBEW had 85 outstanding issues, which equaled an additional cost of $27 million over three years, or an average increase of 25 percent per year, according to the railway.

The approximately 3,000 CP conductors and engineers represented by the Teamster union also went on strike in February 2015. The strike lasted only one day, as the union agreed to arbitration when the federal government, including Labour Minister Kellie Leitch, committed to introducing back-to-work legislation.

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