bargaining threatened for Canadian farmers
July 31, 2008
By the Save My CWB Campaign
Organized workers know the importance of collective bargaining in their
workplaces. But not everyone knows that one of Canada’s biggest, oldest
and most stable collective bargaining units is based in the vast grain
fields of the Prairies.
That bargaining unit – the Canadian Wheat Board - is now fighting for
Representing some 75,000 grain growers, the Canadian Wheat Board is the
largest farm marketing board in the country, handling all western wheat
and barley destined for export and human use. The CWB is a real power in
the international marketplace, with $5 billion in annual sales, and is
100% self-supporting. Backed by the Canadian Grain Commission’s
excellent quality assurance, the Board uses its exclusive “single-desk
selling” power to get the best possible prices, transportation rates and
quality premiums for its producers. National Farmers Union research
shows the Wheat Board is worth $700-800 million annually to farmers,
almost $10,000 per farm.
And it’s not just farmers who benefit. A 2005 PricewaterhouseCoopers
study credited the board with some 14,000 non-farm jobs, which include
transport, administrative and port workers. The CWB moves 20 to 30
million tonnes of grain a year over Canadian rail lines and through
Canadian ports – much of it through Prince Rupert and Vancouver – making
it one of Canada’s biggest rail shippers and one of our strongest
The board has been doing its job - and doing it well - ever since R. B.
Bennett’s Conservative government passed the Canadian Wheat Board Act in
1935. But for years, big American grain interests have been trying to
destroy it and grab control of our grain industry for themselves. They
would love to add wheat and barley to the list of Canadian resources and
jobs leaving Canada for profits elsewhere.
In Stephen Harper, those giant corporations now have an ally. The
current Conservative minority government has been using every sneaky and
antidemocratic method imaginable to undermine the CWB and betray the
farmers and workers who rely on it. They have fired key personnel,
tampered with producer voting lists, interfered with director elections,
muzzled staff, and spent wads of taxpayer dollars on anti-board
propaganda promoting the fraud of “dual marketing”.
“It’s all about money and control,” says Ken Sigurdson, co-founder of
the grassroots Save My CWB Campaign, who farms with his family near Swan
River, Manitoba. “U.S. agribusiness wants to ‘integrate’ Canada’s grain
industry with their own, and cherry-pick our prime production. Without
the Wheat Board, the big grain companies would totally take over.
Farmers would be just contract growers, restricted to the company’s
varieties, their chemicals, their prices and conditions.” No wonder most
grain producers continue to support the board.
Last year, farmers challenged the government’s attempt to remove barley
from CWB jurisdiction, and won in the courts. Recently, the Federal
Court quashed the government-imposed gag order that prevented the board
from defending its role. A furious Harper vowed that anyone standing in
the way of his agenda “is going to get walked over.”
His walking boots include three bills currently on the order paper.
Bills C-39, C-46 and C-57 would disenfranchise even more producers,
tying the board up in frivolous arbitration processes, and undermining
the grain commission’s longstanding mandate to inspect and regulate the
grain industry “in the farmers’ interest”.
Harper’s intent couldn’t be clearer. If he wins a majority, the Canadian
Wheat Board will be history. Canada’s grain industry, with its
associated jobs and economic spin-offs, would go south – literally and
figuratively. East-west grain shipments would be seriously impacted,
with major hits for communities right across the country. The last round
of attacks on Canada’s grain marketing system – repeal of the Crow Rate
and Western Grain Transportation Act in the 1980s and 1990s – had a
devastating impact on grain movements through Canadian ports. In Thunder
Bay alone shipments fell from 12.9 million tonnes in 1990 to only 5.9
million tonnes in 2006 – a drop of over 50%.
What would these changes mean? Farmers and workers would be left at the
mercy of transnational agribusiness and the railroad companies, who
would ship where and when they pleased (the port of Churchill and the
Hudson’s Bay Railroad, both highly dependent on CWB shipments, could
face bankruptcy, stranding many small northern Manitoba communities). No
longer able to count on Canadian grain quality and reliability, our
foreign customers would try elsewhere. They – and Canadian consumers -
would lose one of their strongest protections against the risks of GMO
(genetically modified) wheat. In short, it would spell disaster.
2008 is a critical year for the wheat board and the grain commission.
“We’re fighting hard in the courts and on the hustings to defend our
collective bargaining rights and stop Harper from killing the board,”
says Sigurdson. “We’ve got to win the upcoming CWB Director elections,
and take crucial swing ridings federally. If workers and farmers work
together, we can do it.”
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