CN strike drags on, hitting grain exports, fertilizer output

Nutrien to temporarily idle Rocanville mine

Ottawa/Montreal | Reuters — A prolonged strike at Canadian National Railway, the country’s largest railroad, sent further shocks through the economy on Monday with grain shipments scuttled and layoffs planned at fertilizer producers and an auto shipment terminal.

As Canada’s biggest rail strike in a decade entered its seventh day, industry kept pressuring the government to intervene. The Teamsters Canada Rail Conference, the union representing the 3,200 striking CN employees, said it was no closer to an agreement than when its members first hit picket lines.

The Unifor labour union said 70 employees would be laid off effective Thursday at a Nova Scotia facility contracted by CN to handle vehicles shipped in and out of Canada.

Meanwhile, frustrated farmers facing propane shortages dumped wet corn in front of the prime minister’s local Quebec office and pleaded for the government to intervene.

Striking conductors and yard workers are demanding improved working conditions, including worker rest breaks. The federal government has sidestepped industry calls to force employees back to work, insisting collective bargaining is a quicker solution.

“Every option (is) always on the table, but for the time being we hope that both parties will get to an agreement and that will be the fastest way,” federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau told reporters in Regina.

Canada relies on CN and Canadian Pacific Railway to move products such as crops, oil, potash, coal and other manufactured goods to ports and the United States. Industry figures show about half of Canada’s exports move by rail, and economists have estimated a prolonged strike could eat into economic growth.

A CN spokesman said company officials continue to negotiate and called for binding arbitration, a demand the union has rejected thus far.

Vessels pile up

The strike left at least 35 vessels waiting at Canada’s West Coast to load grain shipments, Mark Hemmes, president of Quorum Corp., which monitors the movement of Prairie grain for the Canadian government, told Reuters. Hemmes said many of the grain handling facilities at major ports on the West Coast are serviced only by CN.

Shipments from those ports supply international markets, including Asia.

An association of Canadian exporters has declared event of delay, allowing members to avoid contract penalties due to circumstances outside their control.

Nutrien said it was preparing to shut down its largest potash mine, at Rocanville, Sask., for two weeks effective Dec. 2.

The north shore of Port of Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet is home to a major potash and coal export terminal as well as grain terminals operated by Cargill and Richardson International that are normally serviced only by CN.

A “trickle of cars” from CP was reaching the grain terminals, but they are “for all intents and purposes shut down,” said Wade Sobkowich, executive director of the Western Grain Elevator Association.

Cargill spokeswoman Connie Tamoto said the company had taken “mitigation measures” to ensure customer needs are met.

Richardson International did not respond to requests for comment.

Around 300 farmers, angry at a shortage of propane they need to dry grain, gathered with a dozen tractors near Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s parliamentary office in Montreal on Monday to demand government action to end the strike. Some farmers held bags of grain and signs that read “To dry grain, you need propane.”

CN is a key link in transporting propane to parts of Eastern Canada where it is also used to heat homes and hospitals.

— Reporting for Reuters by Kelsey Johnson in Ottawa, Allison Lampert in Montreal and Arunima Kumar in Bangalore; additional reporting by Rod Nickel in Winnipeg, David Ljunggren in Ottawa and Christinne Muschi in Montreal.

CN employees picket outside the company’s rail yard at North Battleford, Sask. on Nov. 25, 2019. (Canadian Cattlemen photo by Lisa Guenther)

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