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Montreal waterfront negotiations reach critical phase


By Leo Ryan, Editor

After resuming Wednesday in the presence of mediators, intensified negotiations between the Montreal longshore union and the port employers have reached a critical phase amidst reports of growing cargo diversions as a seven-month truce  on March 21 draws ever closer.

“Monday or Tuesday could prove to be a turning point to avoid potential work stoppages,” said a source close to the negotiations between the CUPE 375 union representing 1,125 dockers and the Maritime Employers Association (MEA).

Montreal is Canada’s second largest port, handling  35 million tonnes of cargo and 1.6 million containers annually.

The dockers have been without a collective agreement since December 31, 2018. The two sides have reportedly remained far apart especially on working hours and scheduling regimes rather than revenue matters.

Last summer, delays and backlogs caused by a series of rotating strikes cost wholesalers $600 million in sales over a two-month period, according to Statistics Canada. Some 21 container ships were diverted to Halifax, Saint John and even New York. But Halifax and Saint John proved not to have enough rail capacity available to seamlessly move the additional containers to such destinations as the U.S. Midwest and Ontario.

Earlier this week, some 16 business groups urged the federal government to “use all the tools at its disposal” to help facilitate a resolution of the bitter deadlock. Thus far, the Ottawa authorities have declined to impose back-to-work legislation, preferring to express “faith in the collective bargaining process.”

Medtech Canada, a national association, also wrote to federal Labour Minister Filomena Tassi, pointing out that people’s lives could hang in the balance during the global pandemic. Medically-necessary products must get through the Port of Montreal.

“This  is not a Quebec-only issue. All dialysis centers in Canada are at risk as these supplies are distributed across Canada,” said Medtech.

In mid-February, Port of Montreal officials expressed alarm over the overall impact of the prolonged waterfront for Canadian businesses and the economy of Greater Montreal, noting that shippers of vital COVID-19 supplies had begun to divert cargo to other ports.

In a recent email to shipper-clients, Hapag-Lloyd began encouraging customers to explore alternatives to routing through Montreal.

And  on March 5, in what appeared to a decision at least partly related to the Montreal conflict, Maersk Line, the biggest container carrier in the world, informed its customers: “To better support your Atlantic gateway supply chain with additional flexibility into and out of Canada, we are planning a trial call at Saint John (New Brunswick) with our Canada Atlantic Express Service (CAE) – as part of a test for a longer term product for customers.