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Rail stoppage? Your timing couldn’t be worse

Farmers have long been critical of railways, and who can blame them?Railways are entrusted (and paid) to move harvests from grain elevators to grain buyers, often abroad, which they usually do. But when they don’t, it can be a disaster.

Most lately, in 2014 and again in 2018, events occurred that delayed grain shipments and left farmers stuck. For example, some grain that was supposed to be delivered to buyers before Christmas was still sitting idle in April.

Railways blamed issues such as the weather, poor grain-company projections and inept grain-car scheduling.

Farmers hit the roof. Politicians loudly demanded better service on behalf of their constituents.

But the alternatives for hauling huge grain harvests long distances are limited and uneconomical. Ultimately, the railways have the upper hand, not to mention a network that includes lines that stretch way into the US. They are massive. 

Even given their checkered history though, it’s hard to fathom the thinking that went into Sunday’s decision by CP Rail to lock out workers threatening to strike.

It’s equally hard to fathom how workers could make that threat at this time, given global conditions.

The anxious, on-edge world is looking to North America as a reliable grain supplier this year, given the uncertainties created on global markets by the Russia-Ukraine war. North American farmers need fertilizer to make their crops as productive as possible. Fertilizer companies need potash to make fertilizer. Potash delivery depends on rail service.

So, in the face of fragile supply chains, is this really a good time to threaten to go on strike? Or to lock out workers? To gain public sympathy?

No, it’s not.

Pro-union communications make the railway workers’ plight sound terrible. “The conditions which they are fighting against – a ruthless scheduling regime enforced with draconian disciplinary measures, a cap on pensions, stagnant wages and workplace benefits – are the same issues which workers everywhere confront,” it says.

Further, it points out railways are going to make money hand over fist this year, given demand for their services and high commodity prices.

Others, like the Grain Farmers of Ontario and the Canadian Canola Growers Association, took the side of the farmers.

Brendan Byrne, chair of the Grain Farmers of Ontario, noted that farmers have a limited growing season. Transportation disruption will mean they don’t get seed in the ground with the nutrients that the seed needs to grow. 

“Lower production on the farm means less food in the system here at home and less to help those worldwide that will desperately need our help,” he said.

The canola growers said that without rail service, the grain handling system quickly backs up, elevators and processing plants may stop accepting grain into their facilities. In turn, farmers lose the ability to sell their canola and generate the necessary cash flow to manage their farm operations.  

It also notes that Canada’s 43,000 canola growers export approximately 90 per cent of the canola crop they grow every year. Most of these sales rely on Canadian rail transportation to reach a port or an export market. Rail disruptions affect Canada’s reputation as a reliable supplier to its export customers.

With farmers urging the federal government to waste no time resolving the labour disruption – most likely by forcing back to work legislation – the two sides quickly agreed to binding arbitration. The workers were back on the job Tuesday at noon.

Really, though, this solves nothing. It leaves everyone – including the public – with a bad taste in their mouths.

But in the end, trains, fertilizer and grain will move…at least for now.

A little more local for your inbox.

Seven days. One newsletter. Local reporting about people and places you
won't find anywhere else. Stay caught up with The Observer This Week.

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