By Leo Ryan
In a move strongly regretted by maritime employers , the union representing 1,125 longshoremen at the Port of Montreal announced that its members will cease working overtime indefinitely as of tomorrow. The decision plunging Canada’s second largest port into revived turmoil and provoking more cargo diversions followed the statement on Saturday by the Maritime Employers Association that it was suspending the guaranteed income, or job security provision, in the existing contract after the port “suffered a substantial 11% volume drop in March, caused by the uncertainty and anxiety triggered by the labour relations situation.”
While as of April 13, the dockers will not work overtime or take part in training activities, they will not work weekend shifts as of April 17.
At a press conference today, CUPE 375 union leader Michael Murray stressed “we are not shutting down the port” and affirmed the partial work stoppage would have little impact on consumers.”
The Port of Montreal indicated it had no plan to comment today.
But the MEA rapidly responded: “The planned pressure tactics, namely the stopping of overtime work, of docking activities, of training and of weekend work, are being presented as a response to the cessation of payment for the hours that are not worked.
“This indefinite strike places the Montreal port industry in a precarious situation. This decision by the union will very quickly cause significant congestion and will have a major impact on the fluidity of the logistics chain, therefore undermining the economic recovery in Quebec and Canada.”
After declaring it was currently evaluating all of its options, the MEA indicated: “We are eager for a speedy settlement and remain ready to continue the negotiations as soon as we are summoned by the mediators.”
Also speaking out was the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters association, which urged Ottawa to intervene to ensure service continuity.
The two sides appear to have made little progress in prolonged negotiations to renew a collective agreement which expired on December 31, 2018. In the wake of a series of strikes last summer, they concluded a 7-month armistice that ended on March 21 – and on that same day the union overwhelmingly rejected a formal MEA offer while not immediately threatening a strike and expressing a wish to re-open negotiations with federal mediators (as happened).
At the press conference, Mr. Murray confirmed that working schedules were a major outstanding issue for dockers whose average annual income is about $125,000 under a system where a docker must be available 19 days out of 21 but usually this does not exceed 16 days. “What the new generation wants is a better balance between work and personal/family life.”
The proposed latest changes by the MEA would give dockers five additional weekend days off, more possibilities of exchanging shifts, more fixed working hours and the establishment of s joint committee to “reform” working schedules.
In his comments, Mr. Murray also challenged the factors evoked by the MEA for the recent 11% drop in container tonnage.
He alleged firstly “it was not surprising to see fewer containers in Montreal. One should not blame the dockers for the decline in traffic in light of the rising carrier costs of transporting containers between the Mediterranean and Montreal.”
In this regard, he alluded to a $500 premium recently imposed by French shipping lime CMA-CGM on 20ft containers on the Mediterranean-Atlantic route (leading source of Montreal’s container business).
He also referred to what he called “monstrous congestion in northern European ports. So ships destined for Montreal have been delayed.”
And, lastly, Mr. Murray referred, to present big pressures by China to get empty containers to meet huge shipping demands.
(photo Port of Montreal)