More than 1,100 Montreal dockers today began an unlimited strike that shut down almost all operations at Canada’s second largest port engulfed in one of the longest labour conflicts in its history.
But the work stoppage could be short-lived after the federal government on Sunday announced plans to introduce and fast-track back-to-work legislation later this week if the longshore union, CUPE 375, and the Maritime Employers Association do not rapidly negotiate a compromise to replace a collective agreement which expired in December 2018. A meeting with federal mediators began today at 9 am – two hours after the strike started and picket lines spread in various areas of the port.
With the two parties remaining far apart, with working schedules a central issue, Labour Minister Filomena Tassi said that forcing a resumption and maintenance of port activities constituted the government’s “least favoured option.”
“We believe in the collective bargaining process,” she said, adding: “However, the government must act when all other efforts have been exhausted and a work stoppage is causing significant economic harm to Canadians.”
Martin Imbleau, president and CEO of the Montreal Port Authority (MPA), welcomed the news of potential Ottawa intervention – a step strongly urged in recent weeks by freight forwarders and a host of business groups as several shipping lines began diverting their vessels, with Halifax high up on the list of alternatives.
The union had announced the strike call Friday in response to changes made by the Maritime Employers Association in work shifts and guaranteed income arrangements after the union launched overtime and weekend strikes on April 17. These developments contributed to a marked cargo decline provoked by continuing waterfront uncertainty.
The union said it was willing to call off the strike if the MEA dropped its “pressure tactics.”
However, there was no reported MEA message in this direction. Thus CUPE 375 President Martin Lapierre confirmed on Sunday that the Monday strike was maintained – “the employer having refused to re-establish the working conditions of the dockers touching on job security and the working hours.”
“After several strike episodes in 2020 and 2021, which have had and continue to have serious economic and logistical impact, it is mission-critical that the Port of Montreal be able to fully and sustainably play its strategic role as an economic engine at the service of the local population and SMEs without interruption,” said Martin Imbleau of the Port of Montreal.
On average, the MPA handles $275 million worth of goods every day, ranging from agri-food products, pharmaceuticals and construction equipment to flagship products exported by local companies. A recent economic study found that a disruption of port activities incurs a loss of $10 million to $25 million per day for the Canadian economy.
The Port of Montreal further declared: “It should be noted that the strike episodes in the summer of 2020 hit hard, with 80,000 TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units) grounded or rerouted and some 20 vessels diverted to competing ports, a trend that certain shipping lines began in recent months given the uncertainty associated with the labour dispute.
“In the recent partial strike episode, after a single weekend of stoppage, the impact was already significant: close to 10,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) grounded, a backlog and delays in rail convoys, and shipping lines with vessels en route to Montreal obliged to rework their logistics.”