By Leo Ryan, Editor
The prolonged Port of Montreal waterfront conflict hit a new flash point today with the union representing 1,150 dockers announcing an “indefinite” general strike starting Monday at 7 am. But at the same time, the union said the work stoppage could be avoided if the maritime employers dropped their pressure tactics and both sides returned to the table of negotiations.
“If the Maritime Employers Association does not want a strike, it just has to lift its pressure tactics and the union will do the same,” CUPE 375 spokesman Michel Murray told a press conference. No overtime strikes. No weekend strikes. It’s quite simple. We want a return to the negotiating table.”
“We do not want to harm the Montreal economy – we just wish to exercise our fundamental right to collectively negotiate,” Mr. Murray said.
The dramatic move by CUPE 375 creating further uncertainty at Canada’s second biggest port was a rapid response to the decision announced yesterday by the Maritime Employers Association (MEA) to modify the working hours as of Monday “to maintain the fluidity of the logistics chain” to mitigate the effects of the overtime and weekend strikes launched on April 13.
“The 375 and its members are strong and mobilized as never before,” stated union leader Martin Lapierre. “The MEA and its maritime companies should realize that the 375 will never break.”
As was the case during a series of strikes last summer, the docker union agreed to maintain handling of grain ships and vessels supplying Newfoundland and Labrador.
Reacting to the union’s decision, the MEA stated: “This decision from the union’s executive is very disappointing while the fluidity of the logistic chain remains crucial to the economic recovery. The MEA is currently evaluating all of its options. We are eager for a speedy settlement.”
The MEA also reiterated that it “used the provisions of the collective agreement which allow it to switch to regular schedules in order to compensate the harmful effects” of the current overtime and weekend strikes.
Under the modification announced by the MEA, an estimated 80% of dockers working 5.2 hours on an 8-hour shift were to work a full 7 hours.
The MEA and the union have been unable to find enough common ground in negotiations – dominated by work schedule issues – to replace a collective agreement which expired on December 31, 2018. A 7-month truce ended on March 21. Subsequent offers and counter offers have failed to break the deadlock.
In recent weeks, the port has been losing container cargo diverted mainly to Halifax by shipping lines.
The escalation of the conflict is expected to spark renewed calls by the Port of Montreal and many business interests in Canada and Quebec for Ottawa to intervene directly rather than allow mediated negotiations to run their course. Thus far, the federal government has avoided introducing back-to-work legislation – but this option now appears increasingly likely in the overall context of economic recovery priorities amidst a persistent global pandemic.
Bruce Rodgers, executive director of the Canadian International Freight Forwarders Association (CIFFA) said on Thursday, “In the same week the federal government committed tens of billions to stimulate the economy, a labour dispute in one of Canada’s most critical transportation hubs is acting to suppress economic growth.”
The businesses and citizens of Montreal and Quebec have become pawns in a destructive game played by the parties in the Port of Montreal’s ongoing labour dispute, he added.
On Friday afternoon, following the union’s press conference, the MEA confirmed it will attend a meeting scheduled for Monday morning by the federal mediation team. But it made no mention of withdrawing its pressure tactics modifying working hours beforehand – a pre-condition earlier underlined by the docker union for averting a general strike starting Monday.
(Port of Montreal photo)