Operations began gradually returning to normal Saturday at the Port of Montreal after the Canadian federal government rushed through legislation late Friday forcing some 1,150 striking dockers back to work. Non-compliance by either dockers or port employers carried fines of up to C$100,000 a day. The bill also provides for the appointment of a mediator-arbitrator who will have the power to impose a binding new collective agreement within 90 days.
Such government intervention was sought by increasingly anxious business circles across the country and the Ontario and Quebec provincial governments along with Canada’s 2nd largest port serving shippers in a large hinterland that includes the U.S. Midwest.
“This new turning point lets the Port of Montreal regain stability and the capability to fulfill its strategic role as a public service without long-term interruptions,” said Martin Imbleau, president and ceo of the Montreal Port Authority. This role is especially important while we are still in the middle of a pandemic.”
An average of C$275 million (US$223 million) worth of goods pass daily through the port, including pharmaceuticals and agri-food products.
The special legislation marked a defeat for labor and its rights-to-strike privileges, but the Liberal minority government of Prime Minister Trudeau argued that it had no choice in light of the gravity of the situation for a country striving to recover economically from a global pandemic still in progress.
Already, last summer, the Port of Montreal was hostage to a series of strikes that led to the diversion of some two dozen container vessels to Halifax, Saint John, and New York/New Jersey. Impressively enough, though, the port’s container volume for all of 2020 fell by under 6% to 1.6 million teu.
The Port of Montreal had become heavily congested due to a week-long strike and the recent refusal of the dockers to work overtime and on weekends in response to the Maritime Employers Association (MEA) decision to extend work shifts and change existing guaranteed income arrangements. The MEA justified its move after pointing out that cargo tonnage had fallen 11% in March year-over-year due to diversions. Over the same period, other North American ports posted double-digit increase thanks to import surges from Asia.
The MEA and the docker union, CUPE 375, are still far apart in negotiations to replace a collective agreement that expired in December 2018. Work schedule issues have proven the most difficult to resolve.
The Montreal Port Authority (MPA) reported there was close to 20,000 containers currently sitting idle on port territory and about 10 vessels waiting in various sectors of the St. Lawrence River to call at the port. These included three Hapag-Lloyd container ships, the Ottawa Express, the Montreal Express and the Genoa Express, that had been anchored off the pilot station of Les Escoumins, some 260 nautical miles from Montreal.
The resumption of operations and the return to a smooth flow of goods will take several days of work by port workers and supply chain stakeholders, the MPA said. Because of this, clients waiting to import or export goods can expect delays in the coming weeks.
Meanwhile, Montreal port officials are well aware that much is at stake in rapidly meeting the challenge of restoring the port’s reputation as a stable gateway seamlessly moving cargo. The port clearly does not want to experience loss of market share due to waterfront labor conflicts – just as the U.S. West Coast lost business to the East and Gulf Coasts as a result of multiple longshore labor disruptions in recent years.
Moreover, an immediate priority is to soon proceed with the start-up of construction of the planned C$750 million Contrecoeur container terminal now that the Port of Montreal has received an environmental green light from the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada (not the case of the Port of Quebec’s Laurentia project that appears to have still serious hurdles to overcome).
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