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St. Lawrence Seaway workers strike outside the St. Lambert Lock in Saint-Lambert, Que., on Oct. 23.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Unionized workers on the St. Lawrence Seaway have been on strike, halting shipments of key commodities such as steel products, wheat and road salt.

Around 361 Unifor members went on strike Sunday after negotiators failed to reach an agreement with their employer, the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp. The union says they are fighting for higher wages to keep up with the rising cost of living.

The St. Lawrence Seaway is a marine shipping route that links the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes through a system of 15 locks between Lake Erie and Montreal. The transit system stretches about 3,700 kilometres from Lake Superior to the Atlantic.

This is the second strike to affect a major part of Canada’s shipping system this year, after one that shut down the Port of Vancouver for nearly two weeks in July. The work stoppage has been blamed for straining the country’s supply chains and weighing down a wide range of economic activity over the summer, as both imports and exports suffered.

The full Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway system, also known as “Highway H2O,” serves over 100 ports and commercial docks, and helps Canada’s Prairie provinces and the U.S. Midwest export goods. Almost 25 per cent of Seaway traffic travels to and from overseas ports, especially in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

A range of products are currently being impacted by the strikes, from the road salt used on icy roads and fertilizer, to the Seaway’s largest cargoes of grain, iron and steel.

Here’s a look at the key commodities that are currently being impacted by the strike.

Grain and other agricultural products

Agricultural products make up around 40 per cent of all Seaway trade, with much of the wheat harvested from the Prairies and parts of Ontario moving through the Seaway. Other cargoes include corn, soybeans, barley, oats and flaxseed.

The fall harvest is the busiest time for companies as they rush to move their products before the winter.

“The timing is really bad for us,” said Wade Sobkowich, head of the Western Grain Elevator Association. Grain companies that cannot deliver wheat and other crops on time face financial penalties, which are eventually passed on to farmers, he said.

Fertilizer Canada chief executive officer Karen Proud said distributors and retailers are also concerned about the effective freeze on imported crop nutrients, which need to be on store shelves by early spring for planting season.

Iron and steel

Iron and steel products, raw and processed, are a major cargo for the Seaway. Products include steel slabs, scrap iron, bars, rods, and manufactured iron and steel.

Iron ore and other mining products

Mine products, including iron ore, coal, salt and stone, make up more than 40 per cent of total Seaway trade each year.

Algoma Central, the biggest domestic ship operator on the Great Lakes, said many of its ships are now docked, waiting to haul iron ore to mills in Hamilton where it will be turned into steel for the auto industry.

Cement and other construction materials

Mine products including stone, cement and gypsum pass through the Seaway. Shipments of cement and stone bound for construction sites in the Greater Toronto Area are being held up by the strike.

“We have a lot of traffic moving into the GTA for construction purposes. That’s very important in a climate where we need more housing,” said Bruce Burrows, CEO of the Chamber of Marine Commerce.

Fuel, oil and petroleum products

Petroleum products are also shipped through the Seaway. Prior to the strike, shipping lines and their customers had been working to move gasoline and jet fuel before the locks in the Welland Canal and the St. Lawrence River close for the winter in late December and reopen in late March.

With reports from Eric Atkins, Nicolas Van Praet and David Parkinson.

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