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Seaway strike could hurt Prairie farmers

(Resource News International) — A strike by St. Lawrence Seaway employees would result in a loss of East Coast shipping capacity at a time when western Canadian producers can least afford it, according to an industry source.

“It’s a prime time for western Canadian producers to market their grain and oilseed crops and to sell those commodities onto the world market at a good value,” said Rick Steinke, director of logistics for the Canadian Wheat Board.

The St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp. (SLSMC) last Tuesday received the results of strike votes taken by its 445 unionized employees. The votes give the union a mandate to strike on 72 hours’ notice at any time after Oct. 10.

Steinke said the CWB is very concerned and has certainly been participating in the situation.

“The CWB is fully engaged in this potential conflict as we see the movement of grain from Canada as an essential service,” he said. “There is a need to resolve this situation before it occurs.”

Grain and oilseeds from Western Canada are generally railed to port facilities at Thunder Bay, Ont. From there the grain and oilseeds are generally transferred from Thunder Bay terminals to East Coast transfer elevators located at the mouth of the St. Lawrence Seaway system by laker vessels. Some smaller ocean going vessels can also load at Thunder Bay terminals.

“Our understanding is that if the strike by the St. Lawrence workers goes ahead, it will be very difficult to move grain through the St. Lawrence Seaway without the seaway management corporation employees,” Steinke said. “We need them to operate the locks and allow for the flow of products.”

Steinke said the industry has certainly been putting into place contingency plans should the strike go ahead.

“There will be some release valves, but overall it will be difficult to replace that capacity during peak season.” he said.

During harvest time it is a very busy time of year for both East and West Coast shipments, Steinke acknowledged.

The SLSMC said it “continues to be confident that a satisfactory resolution to these matters can be found at the bargaining table, and looks forward to a resumption of negotiations” on Oct. 6.

However, if an agreement cannot be reached, seaway management is also preparing contingency plans to ensure an orderly shutdown of operations if needed. The seaway would then be shut for the duration of any strike action.

The 3,700-km St. Lawrence Seaway connects the
Great Lakes with the Atlantic Ocean. It is typically open for
traffic from late March to late December.

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