Grain farmers dreading possible CP Rail strike

As Canadian Pacific Railway and two of its unions continue negotiations in Montreal this week, grain farmers are bracing themselves for the possible work stoppage — saying there is already a backlog in grain shipments.

Alberta Wheat Commission says there is already a shortfall of grain shippers

Grain and oil rail cars pass by a grain elevator in Rosser, Man., just outside of Winnipeg. Farmers say they are worried about the effects of a possible strike for union members employed by the Canadian Pacific Railway. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

As Canadian Pacific Railway and two of its unions continue negotiations in Montreal this week, grain farmers are bracing themselves for the possible work stoppage — saying there is already a backlog in grain shipments.

"Right now the railways have failed to supply about 17,000 hopper cars," said Kevin Auch, vice chair of the Alberta Wheat Commission.

They are falling behind already.- Kevin Auch, Alberta Wheat Commission

"It’s about a 10 per cent shortfall of what they promised grain shippers though the first 24 weeks of the current crop year. So they are falling behind already."

Teamsters Canada Rail Conference gave CP a 72-strike notice Tuesday evening, meaning 3,300 locomotive engineers, conductors and other train workers could walk off the job midnight on Saturday.

The Teamsters aren’t the only CP union facing a strike deadline. Unifor — which represents 1,650 workers who perform safety inspections, brake tests and some repair and maintenance work — will be in a legal strike position early on Sunday morning.

Unifor has not yet given 72-hour strike notice. It would have to do so just after midnight on Wednesday in order to serve notice to strike on Sunday.

So, what are the issues under negotiation? The unions are keeping their cards close to their chests, but working conditions, contract length and wages are on the table. There is a desire among union members to participate in the efficiency and profit gains at the railway.

If a strike does happen, the question becomes whether the federal government will legislate them back to work as it did when the Teamsters at CP went on strike in 2012.

The strike lasted nine days. Lisa Raitt, who was the labour minister at the time, said the strike would cost the Canadian economy $540 million per week.

Current Labour Minister Kellie Leitch won’t commit to anything yet.

As negotiations are still ongoing, she said it would be inappropriate to speculate on what, if any, government action could be taken.

“We believe that the best solution is the one that parties reach themselves. Our government has always said that protecting the Canadian economy is a top priority, therefore, we strongly encourage both sides to work together and reach an agreement that will ensure the continuation of rail services.”

Grain farmers are certainly hoping that Leitch acts quickly. 

"Well, I think that I’d like to see that happen again,” said Auch. “I’m not sure whether it will.”