CN strike prompts potash mine shutdown, triggering 550 temporary layoffs

Canada’s largest potash mine will temporarily shut down and lay off 550 employees, the latest casualties of a strike at Canadian National Railway Co. that has disrupted industries from fertilizer to farming.

Nutrien Ltd. notified workers Monday that its mine in southeastern Saskatchewan will halt operations for two weeks starting Dec. 2. The vast majority of the Rocanville mine’s product is shipped by CN Rail, which is now operating at 10 per cent capacity.

The announcement comes two days after news broke of 70 short-term layoffs at CN’s auto terminal in the Halifax area due to halted car shipments.

Trains have stopped moving across the country as more than 3,000 CN staff hit the picket lines in a week-long strike that has stalled commodities and frustrated farmers who rely on propane to dry their grain and heat their barns and greenhouses.

“It is extremely disappointing that in a year when the agricultural sector has been severely impacted by poor weather and trade disputes, the CN strike will add further hardship to the Canadian agriculture industry,” Nutrien chief executive Chuck Magro said in a release.

About 50 more employees at the mine will likely be affected but will remain on the job, a Nutrien spokesman said.

Last week more than 250 staff at CN’s Autoport terminal received layoff notices, but the company later rescinded the notices for 180 employees, according to Unifor.

The sense of urgency around the strike’s ripple effects continues to grow. Hundreds of Quebec farmers marched through Montreal streets Monday alongside a convoy of tractors to dump heaps of corn at the steps of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s riding office, calling on Ottawa to resolve the week-long labour stoppage.

Pascal Leduc, a corn producer from north of Montreal, said that half his crop lies in the fields, which a full silo prevents him from harvesting as winter snows threaten to blanket it, rendering the yield unusable.

“I don’t have any propane, and I have grain in my silo which I can’t dry,” Leduc told The Canadian Press. “I don’t want to lose it.”

Federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau on Monday urged CN and its workers to reach a deal to alleviate the impact on farmers, saying negotiation “would be the best way for every party and the fastest solution.”

“That’s not enough,” said Fertilizer Canada president Garth Whyte, who said the strike is costing his industry $70 million a week.

“Last we week we were worrying about what could happen. Today it is happening. They can’t stretch this out further. Prime Minister Trudeau needs to tell Canadians his plan to end the CN strike,” Whyte said in a phone interview.

“Our industry and the whole economy has been held hostage by this strike.”

Whyte called for binding arbitration — which CN says it has volunteered to enter — or reconvening Parliament early in order to pass back-to-work legislation.

The parties negotiated over the weekend, but “there’s no progress I can report at this stage,” said union spokesman Christopher Monette.

About 3,200 CN conductors, trainpersons and yard workers across the country, who have been without a contract since July 23, walked off the job early last Tuesday morning over worries about long hours, fatigue and what they consider dangerous working conditions.

The strike could cost the Canadian economy upwards of $3 billion if it continues until Dec. 5 — when Parliament is scheduled to resume — according to TD senior economist Brian DePratto.

Propane is critical to fuelling mining operations and heating facilities from water treatment plants to remote communications towers. While Ontario and the Maritimes also face looming shortages amid a dearth of train shipments, about 85 per cent of Quebec’s propane comes via rail, the bulk of it from Sarnia, Ont., and some from Edmonton — the country’s two propane trading hubs.

Quebec hospitals, nursing homes and farms with livestock get priority, leaving thousands of grain farmers in the lurch.

“We need the propane right now. Not in one week or two weeks — right now,” said Quebec farmers union president Marcel Groleau.

He called on the prime minister to put more pressure on CN Rail to reach a settlement with the Teamsters union.

The union has framed CN’s decision to transport freight other than propane as “a business decision” to stir up a “manufactured” crisis.

The Montreal-based railroad operator has rejected the union’s claim that the strike concerns workplace health and safety, suggesting instead that it revolves around worker compensation.

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