Striking Port of Montreal workers brave the elements to walk the picket line in Montreal on Monday, August 17, 2020. The workers have been without a contract for over two years. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

Quebec, Ontario ask Ottawa to intervene in Montreal port strike, now in week two

MONTREAL — The Quebec and Ontario governments are asking Ottawa to intervene in the Montreal port strike, which entered its second week Monday.

If it drags on, the shutdown will harm Eastern Canada’s economy and erode the competitiveness of a port that generates $2.6 billion in annual economic activity, according to a letter to the federal government from four provincial cabinet ministers.

“This situation comes on top of an economic crisis linked to the COVID-19 pandemic which is already having negative effects on many companies needing to import and export via port facilities,” Quebec Labour Minister Jean Boulet said.

Ontario Economic Development Minister Vic Fedeli and Labour Minister Monte McNaughton stressed the Montreal port’s crucial role for a province that has no direct access to large container ships.

Released Monday, the Aug. 11 letter to federal Labour Minister Filomena Tassi and Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains was sent one day after Tassi rejected a request from more than a half-dozen industry groups to force the resumption of port activities.

Tassi responded again to provincial entreaties Monday afternoon, noting federal mediators are already meeting with both sides to reach an agreement.

“We understand there has been encouraging progress made between the two parties in recent bargaining,” Tassi said in a statement.

“Our government has faith in the collective bargaining process, as we know the best deals are made at the table, and our full expectation is for both parties to continue to work together to come to an agreement quickly.”

The Maritime Employers Association has said Ottawa could choose to intervene by imposing binding arbitration — rendered by a federally appointed mediator — or back-to-work legislation, though Parliament is not slated to reconvene until Sept. 21.

Quebec and Ontario stopped short of specifying how they would like Ottawa to act, with Queen’s Park simply “calling on the federal government to exercise its leadership in order to facilitate a resolution.”

The labour action by 1,125 dockworkers, who have been without a collective agreement since September 2018, revolves largely around wages and scheduling, with workers routinely working 19 days out of 21 due to heavy traffic through the port, according to the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

The strike, launched on Aug. 10, has so far diverted eight container ships to Halifax, Saint John, N.B., and New York City, impacting thousands of importers and exporters and halting most of the 2,500 trucks that roll in and out of the port daily, port employers say.

The union has stopped mooring services except for grain vessels and supplies to Newfoundland and Labrador in order to comply with the federal labour code and a decision rendered by the Canada Industrial Relations Board, respectively.

Martin Tessier, head of the employers association, has proposed to negotiate with CUPE over the next 45 to 60 days, culminating in binding arbitration if the two sides remain at loggerheads.

A port shutdown disrupts the flow of medical supplies, automotive parts, retail and manufacturing goods and bulk products, with higher prices as the end result for consumers, Tessier said.

The cost of importing or exporting a single container to or from the Montreal area goes up by between $350 to $600 if it comes by way of another port, according to Quebec’s economy ministry.

CUPE declined to comment on the developments Monday.

The broader showdown between management and union follows a 21-month battle over the definition of “essential service” amid negotiations for a new collective agreement.

The Canada Industrial Relations Board concluded in June that the employers association had not demonstrated “imminent and serious risks to the health and safety of the public” — the criteria for an essential service — in the event of a strike.

The Maritime Employers Association had asked the board in October 2018 to review whether the workers carry out essential work in a bid to shield the docks from strike threats.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 17, 2020.

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