Provincial governments and farmers urged Ottawa earlier this week to immediately address the Canadian National Railway strike, saying the labour dispute could have far-reaching implications for the agriculture industry and the Canadian economy.
All of CN’s Canadian bulk freight traffic has essentially come to a halt since 3,200 of the company’s conductors, train workers and yard workers went on strike last week.
Many western provinces and commodity groups want the federal government to immediately recall Parliament to enact emergency back-to-work legislation, arguing the country’s economy will be severely damaged the longer the strike continues.
“It has a terrible possibility of really affecting our farmers. They’ve already had a difficult year this year,” said Alberta Agriculture Minister Devin Dreeshen, while speaking to reporters in Edmonton.
“We want the federal government to take this seriously and ultimately come back early to have back-to-work legislation, so that this key driver of our industry doesn’t just cripple.”
Saskatchewan Agriculture Minister David Marit said the province wants Ottawa to take action if CN and Teamsters Canada Rail Conference (TCRC) don’t resolve the dispute.
By the time of press deadline Nov. 25, the federal government had not indicated it will resume Parliament early, though Labour Minister Patty Hajdu and Transport Minister Marc Garneau have met with CN and the TCRC.
MPs are expected to return to the House of Commons Dec. 5. The minority Liberal government would need votes from other political parties to pass back-to-work legislation.
Political scientists say the power to end strikes remains with Parliament, noting that all recent back-to-work orders have come after legislative votes.
“Certainly, if the option existed, many previous governments would have opted for an order in council (a decision made by cabinet),” said Jared Wesley, an associate professor in political science at the University of Alberta.
The dispute between workers and CN largely has to do with safety and working conditions. Wages aren’t a sticking point, the union said.
The union says members are concerned about what it calls dangerous practices, which include the requirement of workers to operate trains alone.
As well, it said workers have been operating from the outside of the trains, hanging on to moving trains with one hand while using the other hand to operate a remotely controlled locomotive.
“Railroaders are expected to do this in rain and in freezing temperatures, sometimes for distances of up to about 17 miles,” TCRC spokesperson Christopher Monette said in a statement.
Workers are also concerned about fatigue, she added, claiming CN is making it harder for members to get needed rest because of more hours and less staff.
In its annual report, the Transportation Safety Board identified fatigue as a significant problem in the industry.
CN has offered little comment on the dispute, except to say that it is at the negotiating table with the assistance of federal mediators.
But as CN and the TCRC duke it out, farmers are left feeling anxious about getting commodities to market.
“Grain farmers from coast to coast are experiencing one of the most challenging harvests in recent memory and international trade disputes have closed some of our most reliable markets,” said Jeff Nielsen, chair of Grain Growers of Canada.
“Any delay in shipping will damage our access to hard-won markets,” he said.
There are also concerns the dispute is causing propane shortages, which is a major issue because many farmers will need the fuel to dry grain.
La Co-op fédérée, the largest agri-food company in Quebec and the only Canada-wide agricultural co-operative, described the propane shortage as a crisis and that it can’t be taken lightly.
It said actions undertaken by its co-operatives to help members won’t be enough to restore the situation.
“Extraordinary measures are required and both levels of government must move quickly. At the moment, it is a pressing priority in the agricultural sector because the situation will quickly become dramatic if it is allowed to continue,” Marcel Groleau, the president of UPA, an agriculture group in Quebec, said in a statement.
On Twitter, farmer Doug Johnston said: “Harvest from hell continues. Got notice this morning that I get no more propane (till) the CN strike is over, wow.”
In CN’s operating plan, it said it planned on delivering 5,650 hopper cars per week to Canadian elevators, amounting to more than a half-million tonnes of grain.
“If those cars are not supplied, farmers can’t deliver and are not paid. Even a disruption of a few days will cause a massive backlog and economic losses that are ultimately borne by farmers,” said the Alberta barley and wheat commissions in a statement.
Barry Prentice, who teaches supply chain management at the University of Manitoba, said elevator companies likely aren’t happy.
He said if elevators don’t want grain, they could lower their prices.
“Someone has to move grain or they are going to face price discounts,” he said.
Prentice said producers who use elevators on CN lines will be most affected. He said the Peace region in Alberta only has CN lines.
He saidwhen rail traffic comes back online, priority will likely be given to moving containers first, given high demand for Christmas inventory. Bulk products would be next, he said.
Prentice said the industry is currently in a “near-death” situation with the stoppage, but it can become a total-death situation as time progresses.
“It’s bad, but it’s a function of time,” he said. “It is something that will get progressively worse the longer it drags out.”