Containers are unloaded at the Port of Montreal Thursday, July 20, 2017 in Montreal. Montreal port employers and longshoremen are gearing up for a battle over the definition of “essential service” amidst ongoing negotiations for a new collective agreement.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

How ‘essential’ is dock work? Answer could determine if longshoremen can strike

Montreal port employers and longshoremen are gearing up for a battle over the definition of “essential service” amid ongoing negotiations for a new collective agreement.

The Maritime Employers Association asked the Canada Industrial Relations Board in October to review whether longshoremen carry out essential work in a bid to shield the docks from strike threats, with two weeks of hearings kicking off Monday.

A ruling establishing certain port services, such as the movement of prescription drugs, as “essential” would bar a full strike or lockout in the interest of public safety or security, according to federal labour legislation.

The employers have said they are trying to balance that interest with the union’s right to exert bargaining pressure following the expiration of its collective agreement in December.

“The key for us is the health and safety and security of people. Recently there was freezing rain. Imagine if the city didn’t have salt,” spokesman Yves Comeau told The Canadian Press.

Canadian Union of Public Employees union official Michel Murray argues that dock work is not essential to Canadians’ health and security, and that shippers can turn to other ports in the event of a strike.

“The employers want almost all the containers in the Port of Montreal to be essential services,” Murray said. “But there’s no danger to the Canadian population.

“Canadian Tire or wine from France or furniture from Ikea are not essential to the health and security of Canada,” he said.

The employers association raised the spectre of shortages in medicine, groceries and seeds and fertilizer as a risk to community health.

Employers also warned of resultant layoffs in the trucking, rail and auto industries as well as warehousing and distribution centres in Quebec, Eastern Ontario, and the Greater Toronto Area.

Margot Young, a law professor at the University of British Columbia, stressed the difference between “convenient” and “essential” and said the right to strike is protected under freedom of association in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“You can’t say that simply because it’s going to cost money or cause inconvenience that it therefore has to be an essential service,” she said. “That cost or inconvenience is the essence of the leverage that striking gives workers in the first place.”

In 2010, the industrial relations board ruled that a strike or lockout at the Port of Montreal would effectively suspend transport of essential products to Newfoundland and Labrador, amounting to “a grave and imminent risk to the security or health of the public.”

Murray said he agreed that shipping to Newfoundland should continue. The longshoremen’s official also expressed hope in the ongoing mediation process under the port’s new CEO, Yvon Pelletier, who came on board in November.

“The longshoremen don’t want war, but if anybody is going to continue to piss off the longshoremen and their union, the right to strike is there,” Murray said.

In December, the union voted 99.5 per cent in favour of a strike mandate, which can typically be exercised at any time during contract negotiations, now ongoing. But the employers association forestalled the move with its request to the industrial relations board two months earlier.

No strikes or lockouts can take place until a decision comes down, both sides said.

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