Prairie farm groups that are still fuming over what they call inadequate rail service this winter are now calling on Ottawa to intervene in a simmering labour dispute at Canadian Pacific Railway, the country’s second largest railway company.
Close to 3,500 train engineers, conductors and electrical workers represented by Teamsters Canada Rail Conference (TCRC) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) are set to go on strike at CP as of 12:01 a.m. Saturday.
CP officials confirmed today that the company has already begun shutting down train operations ahead of the possible strike.
The railway company told Calgary media outlets that it also has an embargo application in place on freight shipments to and from CP’s Canadian locations.
Predictably, the threat of a possible strike at CP is not sitting well with shippers, including farmers and grain companies whose grain sales and deliveries are already delayed due to a backlog in hopper car allocations that began late last year and has been building throughout the winter.
On April 19, the Western Canadian Wheat Growers (WCWG) called on Ottawa to prepare for a strike, saying the western Canadian grain industry needs an assurance that it will be able to move its product to market.
Global grain buyers will find alternate suppliers if Canadian farmers cannot deliver their product in a reliable and timely manner, WCWG added.
“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,” said WCWG president Levi Wood.
The wheat growers need assurances that the federal government will move quickly on this issue, including back to work legislation, to ensure that product will continue to move to market, Wood added.
THE WCWG is one of several farm groups that are pushing Ottawa to enact back-to-work legislation in the event that a labour deal is not reached at CP ahead of tomorrow’s deadline.
The Alberta wheat and barley commissions also urged Ottawa to take immediate steps to prevent strike action.
“Because of the monopolistic nature of Canada’s freight rail system, many western Canadian farmers only have access to one rail line,” said Alberta Wheat Commission chair Kevin Bender.
“If a strike were to take place, farmers who can only access the CP line would have no other options to move their grain and would have to wait until rail is moving again to be paid. This will in turn cause major cash-flow issues into this year’s growing season.”
In a news release issued yesterday, Grain Growers of Canada said grain farmers are “growing concerned that a disruption will end any chance we have of salvaging this shipping season.”
A series of events over the last five years has raised growing concerns about how seriously the railways take their responsibility to move grain and other products in the periods of highest demand, the organization said.
“We hope the government will consider all possible tools, including arbitration, legislation and the remedies in the amended Bill C-49, if the labour negotiations do not result in a positive outcome,” said Grain Growers of Canada president Jeff Nielsen.
CP officials said the company is still trying to negotiate a deal that would avert a potential strike.
However, CP chief executive officer Keith Creel said earlier this week he would not sacrifice long-term profitability in order to avoid a strike.
“CP cannot be put in a position where we’re held hostage,” Creel said during a Wednesday conference call with investors.
“We can’t take a position that’s going to destroy our long-term ability to be on solid financial footing.”