As I write, there is growing frustration by farmers over the Canadian National Railway strike.
Let’s get to the bottom line: the federal government should have recalled Parliament early, before its scheduled resumption on Dec. 5, to allow back-to-work legislation to be passed earlier if need be.
Recalling Parliament early would have sent a message that the two sides in the dispute — CN and Teamsters Canada, representing 3,200 rail workers — should come to an agreement or someone else will make decisions for them. (The minority Liberals would likely receive support from the Conservatives.)
The strike comes at a terrible time for farmers. Trade disputes have affected markets and a wet harvest has reduced grades and affected how much grain is taken off the fields. Many farmers will be looking to move some of their grain to pay the bills. The grain has got to get moving. Bills have to be paid. Some farms may be at risk.
The magnitude of the situation is obvious when we look at the numbers. CN transports more than $250 billion worth of goods annually. The value of exports moved by rail annually is more than $175 billion. Canada exported almost 42 million tonnes of grain, oilseeds and other crops in 2017-18. Almost all of that moves by rail. Canada’s railways move more than 358 million tonnes of goods each year. Agricultural goods and coal were the top commodities transported by weight. About 35 vessels are waiting at Canada’s West Coast to load grain shipments.
Parts of Canada are running out of propane, and Nutrien plans to shut down its Rocanville potash mine for two weeks due to the strike, resulting in the likely layoff 550 employees.
With such a vital role in Canada’s economy, a major rail company cannot be idled for long.
Still, it’s important to recognize that the right to collective bargaining — with the worst case being a strike — has been recognized by the Supreme Court of Canada in its interpretation of the Constitution.
CN workers are protesting over safety conditions, including rest for workers, an issue that has been recognized by the Transportation Safety Board.
If the strike is settled by the time you read this, fair enough, but recalling Parliament early, allowing for faster passage of back-to-work legislation if needed, would still have been the right move.