Farmers want action from Ottawa in weeklong CN Rail strike

Farmers want action from Ottawa in weeklong CN Rail strike

Dozens of tractors from Quebec farms delivered bags of corn to the doors of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's constituency office Monday, along with a demand for action from Ottawa in the weeklong CN Rail strike.

"We're on the alert — it's an intolerable situation," said Marcel Groleau, president of the UPA, Quebec's agricultural producers union, at the rally in Montreal.

His message was echoed across the Prairies, though there are differences in how producers want the labour dispute resolved.

About 3,200 CN employees, members of the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference union, walked off the job last Tuesday. They've been without a contract since July 23, and say they're concerned about long hours, fatigue and what they consider dangerous working conditions.

On Monday, the union released an Oct. 19 recording of a CN supervisor asking a conductor to move his train to a location near Pickering, Ont., where a relief team could take over.

The conductor replies that he and the locomotive engineer are unfit to move a train, having been on duty too long.

Jaela Bernstien/CBC

The union says the conductor was suspended for two weeks without pay after refusing to move the train through residential areas east of Toronto.

"This recording illustrates CN's blatant disregard for the health and safety of our members and the public," Teamsters Canada president François Laporte said in a statement.

"This is why we are on strike against CN. This happens every day across the rail industry, and CN regularly intimidates workers who raise the issue of fatigue with the threat of discipline."

Many farmers say they are sympathetic to the working conditions of rail workers, but they're also worried they won't be able to get crops to market in a year when they had a disappointing harvest and continue to face trade disputes — notably China's ban on Canadian canola.

In Montreal, the UPA isn't asking for special legislation to force the CN employees back to work, but it wants Trudeau and his government to "put pressure on CN" to prioritize the transportation of propane.

Farmers use propane to heat hog barns and henhouses, and they need it to dry their grain before it can be stored — especially this year, when the crop is abnormally wet, said Dominique Leroux, a grain farmer who is also a member of the Grain Farmers Association of Quebec.

Leroux has no propane left on his farm — and he says Ottawa needs to act.

"They need either to resolve the strike, resolve the problem, resolve the negotiation or take a risk with us. Because if we lose our crop, we lose our income," he said, adding that farmers need to harvest before it snows.

"Everything is still in the field. I'm also a grain elevator owner, so what that means is I dry corn for other farmers …. They have to leave their crops in the field, because I can't dry their crops. So that's really stressful for them, for me, for our family, for everybody." 

Strikes part democracy

In Winnipeg, the CN strike was top-of-mind at the annual National Farmers Union meeting, but members have mixed ideas on how they want the dispute settled.

Ian Robson, who farms in western Manitoba, said he is having a hard time planning his grain sales to get the best possible price, but as a member of a farmers union, he supports the Teamsters.

"We like to see fair bargaining and fair determination of labour standards and labour conditions," Robson said.

"The longer the strike goes on, the bigger the impact and that is the point of a strike.… That's what negotiations are for. And you know that's part of democracy and very important that that things play out."

NFU president Katie Ward said she has reached out to federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau, who was re-appointed to the portfolio last week.

"I certainly hope that she will be working with her cabinet colleagues to help shepherd the decision process to an equitable and swift agreement," Ward said.

'It holds all of us ransom'

Manitoba farmer John Preun won't say how he hopes the dispute is settled — he just hopes it's soon.

His grain bin is supposed to be empty this time of year, but instead he has about a dozen bins filled with 7,500 tonnes of cereals, soybeans, oats and wheat.

"This is one of the worst years that I remember in my entire career of farming. I've never seen anything this bad, where we've gone from a drought, to an unconfirmed tornado, to a drought, and then just a deluge of rain when we didn't need it anymore," Preun said.

He agrees rail workers deserve to have a safe workplace and he's sympathetic to their concerns, but he says Canadian farmers are among those paying the price.

"The fact of the matter is that they've brought Canada [to] a standstill. We need the trains to move, so that we can move our grain to an export position. It holds all of us ransom."

Rail is an essential service

The association representing western grain elevators is going further – asking Parliament to recognize rail service as an essential service so it won't be subject to work stoppages.

"My understanding is that they can impose binding arbitration.… We would like to see Parliament resume as quickly as possible to take a look at passing emergency legislation to get grain flowing," said Wade Sobkowich, executive director of the Western Grain Elevator Association, based in Winnipeg.

"We don't think that was the intention of the collective bargaining process to hold Canada's economy as a hostage … as as they work things out."

About half of the 360 Prairie elevators are on CN tracks, and they are being squeezed on both sides of the supply chain, Sobkowich said.

Tyson Koschik/CBC

"On the producer side, farmers are being called in and asked to deliver it at some point in the future [but] they don't get paid until they deliver, so it's having an impact on farmers. And then on the export side … we're paying contract extension penalties, because we can't get the grain to port loaded onto a vessel to get it to a customer."

Empty vessels in Vancouver face fines of up to $15,000 a day, costs that will eventually be passed on to producers.

A worst-case scenario is defaulting on contracts, Sobkowich added.

"If we're not seen as a reliable supplier there are going to be customers in the world that will have less interest in Canadian grains and oilseeds," he said.

"So now we're not able to earn as much of a return on our grain sales yet we still need to move it because we need to make room for next year's crop to come in."

Believes in negotiating

The federal Liberals say they are trying to help both sides reach a deal, but they are hesitant to intervene and introduce back-to-work legislation.

On Monday, Bibeau spoke at the Canadian Western Agribition show in Regina, where she also met with farmers and the Saskatchewan Agriculture Minister David Marit.

She said the federal government believes in the negotiating process and is pushing both sides to come to an agreement.

Canada's agriculture minister is urging Canadian National Railway Co. and its workers to reach a deal to alleviate the impact the ongoing strike is having on farmers.

Supplied

Marie-Claude Bibeau delivered remarks Monday at the Canadian Western Agribition show in Regina, where she also met with producers.

Bibeau said the federal government believes in the negotiating process and is pushing both sides to come to an agreement.

Moe says intervene

"Every option's always on the table. But for the time being, we hope that both parties will get to an agreement," she said.

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe wants Ottawa to intervene in the strike, and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has asked that Parliament be recalled early to pass back-to-work legislation.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister said Monday he wants Ottawa to "move toward a resolution as soon as possible," adding Manitoba and Alberta have been discussing joint strategies to apply pressure on the federal Liberals.

"No one wants to enter into the fray of a labour dispute, but the consequences of this one are so severe," he told reporters.

"This is an issue of public safety now as well in terms of heating supplies, heating fuel…. This is one that they need to take action on fairly quickly.

No quick end

Parliament isn't scheduled to resume until Dec. 5, and the first order of business will be to elect a new Speaker and hear the Speech from the Throne.

Even if the minority Liberals introduce a back-to-work bill, there's no guarantee of a quick end to the strike.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has already said he's opposed to legislating CN workers back. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer wants Parliament brought back early and "emergency legislation" tabled.