Strike Threatens Canadian Grain Distribution
THUNDER BAY, Ontario (AP) _ As western Canadian grain farmers haul in their best harvest ever, grain handlers in Thunder Bay are settling in for a long strike-lockout that will clog half the country’s grain export system.
About 500 employees walked off the job early Wednesday at the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, the largest of six grain elevator companies at this Lake Superior port. The other five companies locked out another 700 workers, shutting down the port for grain handling.
Despite calls from some farm groups for federal back-to-work legislation, both sides in the long-simmering dispute predicted a protracted work stoppage.
Stuart Martin, a Winnipeg lawyer who is chief negotiator for the grain elevator companies, called the union members ″fat cats who’ve got to thin down a bit before they get hungry. That takes time.″
Frank Mazur, chairman of the 1,200-member Lodge 650 of the Brotherhood of Railway, Airline and Steamship Clerks which represents the workers, reacted angrily to Martin’s statement in a telephone interview late Wednesday.
″If that’s what he said, there’s not much chance of getting back to the (bargaining) table,″ said Mazur. His members haven’t had a pay raise since February 1984, he said.
Western grain is shipped by rail to Thunder Bay, where it is cleaned, graded and loaded on lake freighters for movement through the St. Lawrence Seaway.
The port handles about half of Canada’s Prairie grain exports. The rest moves through facilities in Vancouver and Prince Rupert, British Columbia; and Churchill, Manitoba, which are already operating near capacity.
Martin said Canada could lose export sales if the dispute drags on and that would hurt western farmers who are harvesting a record grain crop of 52 million tons. The farmers are already reeling from sagging grain prices.
Canada is one of the world’s major grain producers.
A strike by Thunder Bay grain handlers in 1981 lasted 16 days and cost Prairie farmers an estimated $10 million a day.
Brian Stacy, an information officer for the Canadian Wheat Board, could not estimate daily losses to farmers in this shutdown, but said that Thunder Bay is a ″key cog″ in the export system.
Hal Hennessy, chief of staff of federal Labor Minister Pierre Cadeaux, said Wednesday there is little the government can do unless both sides ask for a mediator. The government can’t legislate the grain handlers back to work since Parliament is not due to sit until Oct. 1.
Mazur said he doesn’t think a mediator would help and blamed the companies for the work stoppage.
He said the strike is against the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, whom the union considers the leader in demands for concessions that have stalled negotiations since contracts ran out in January 1985.
The other five companies are Cargill Ltd., Manitoba Pool Elevators, United Grain Growers, Richardson Terminals Ltd. and Heimbecker Ltd.
Mazur said the companies’ last position at the table included a demand for a 20-percent wage rollback.
Union members, who have been in a legal strike position since last Friday, earned an average of $14.50 an hour.
Bob Balcomb, a spokesman for the St. Lawrence Seaway Authority, said the strike-lockout halts one-third of shipments through the seaway, a devastating blow since traffic is already at an all-time low.
The shutdown could also mean the layoff of about 1,000 railway workers in Thunder Bay.