St. Lawrence Seaway strike will spell huge losses for local producers: Port of Johnstown GM

St. Lawrence Seaway Johnstown

The agriculture industry in Eastern Ontario could lose out on up to $62 million in soybean revenue this season if workers with the St. Lawrence Seaway Corp. strike, the general manager of the Port of Johnstown says. 

On Wednesday, Unifor issued a 72-hour strike notice on behalf of St. Lawrence Seaway workers and said that they’re ready to strike as of midnight Saturday.

Unifor president Lana Payne said in a press release that workers are demanding a “serious wage offer.” Unifor says a strike would effectively shut down transit through the seaway.

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Negotiations began on June 19 and 20 with the help of a conciliator. The two sides held additional talks in September and resumed bargaining Oct. 17. Bargaining was ongoing Friday.

Payne said the workers manage the transit of more than 200 million tons of cargo each year and deserve fair wages for the vital and challenging work they do.

Robert Dalley, general manager at the Port of Johnstown, said the move will have “far-reaching effects” across Eastern Ontario.

The port, located on the St. Lawrence River in the Township of Edwardsburgh and Cardinal near the junction of highways 401 and 416, is the primary exporter for local producers. Dalley said he is concerned about the loss of income that local farmers will face if the Unifor workers walk.

“Right now, it’s soybean harvest and if we don’t export it, the whole system will be backed up. Elevators will plug and we won’t be able to bring any more soybeans in,” he said. “We are the biggest exporter for our producers and if we can’t ship it out, they don’t get paid.”

Dalley said the port usually moves about 200,000 metric tonnes of soybeans annually. Less than half of that has currently been exported, with “at least another 100,000 tonnes that has to come off the fields.” 

Based on the current market price for soybeans, Dalley said local farmers, producers and other stakeholders along the supply chain could be collectively losing up to $62 million in income. 

A prolonged strike could have a “trickle-down effect” on other crops, Dalley added, with the corn season quickly approaching. “It could potentially affect more than just the soybeans and be an even bigger problem for our producers.”

As the port — and local farmers — await updates from Unifor, Dalley said he has been working with the township, seeking possible solutions or approaches to mitigate the impact.

“We’ve sent some support letters … to the Ministry of Transportation and Ministry of Labour to ask that, if they do go on strike, that the government do what they can to support getting them back to work and limiting the effects,” he explained.

“I’ve been here for 15 years and we’ve never had this happen here along the St. Lawrence … Others have, but we haven’t had something that actually stops the vessels,” Dalley continued. “I just hope it doesn’t come to a strike and that, if it does, they find a quick resolution, because it has far-reaching impacts.”

Pascal Chan, senior director, transportation, infrastructure and construction with the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement that, “We are deeply concerned by the 72-hour strike notice by Unifor to the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp.

“We respect the right to collective bargaining and believe sincerely that the best deals are reached at the table. The government needs to work closely with all parties to reach an agreement. These repeated work stoppages are damaging the Canadian economy, fanning inflation and increasing costs for Canadians.”

The workers are members of Unifor locals 4211, 4212 and 4323 in Ontario, and locals 4319 and 4320 in Quebec.

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