Seven months ago, Port of Montreal longshore workers and their employers hit the snooze button on a labor dispute that culminated in a 12-day strike. With that August truce expiring Sunday morning — hours before union members overwhelmingly rejected a final contract offer — another disruption at Canada’s second-busiest port looks increasingly in the cards.
The longshore workers’ union, CUPE 375, said on Sunday that over 99% of members voted to reject a new contract from the Maritime Employers Association. While the longshoremen did not call a new strike, the vote points to a wide gape between the union and management.
“All the stakeholders know this would be an ugly, ugly mess,” said Corey Darbyson, director of Transport Dsquare, an intermodal trucking and logistics company that serves the port. “If a strike happens again, it’s a black eye for Canada, Quebec and the port.”
If a new strike goes ahead, it’s a safe bet that the Port of Halifax will be the location of choice for vessel diversions – as it occurred last year.
The port has seen a surge of incoming containers in the past week relative to Montreal, according to FreightWaves SONAR platform.
“What we’re seeing is increased activity like all ports are right now,” Halifax Port Authority spokesperson Lane Farguson told FreightWaves in an email. “It is very busy.”
Farguson said he wouldn’t link the activity to a potential strike in Montreal. The port and its partners are monitoring the situation closely, he said.
“Our focus is to ensure our regular services receive precedence and that cargo normally moving through Halifax will continue to do so with the efficiency and reliability we are known for,” Farguson wrote. “The Halifax Port Authority is working closely with our terminal operators and CN to ensure COVID-related cargo receives priority.”
CN better prepared for Montreal port strike this time around, executive says
Canadian National Railway (NYSE:CNI), which serves both ports, has been preparing for another strike.
“We learned some things last year — more freight wanted to come into Halifax — it created more expense for us,” CN Chief Operations Officer Rob Reilly at a JP Morgan investors conference on Tuesday. “We’ve learned from that and working with our customers. … We’ll be prepared to handle it much better.”
At Transport DSquare, a small carrier with operations closely tied to the Port of Montreal, the company is ready to handle the spike in demand for containers coming in and out of Halifax. Since last year’s strike, the company has been making plans and has secured warehousing space in Halifax.
“We’re ready,” said Darbyson, DSquare’s director.
But noted that if a strike does go forward, there will be a clear loser: “BCOs are going to pay a bit more,” Darbyson said, referring to beneficial cargo owners.
Port, industry groups urge swift resolution
The Montreal Port Authority, meanwhile, has urged the longshore workers and MEA to reach an agreement. Over 20 container ships carrying 80,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) were diverted to competing ports during the 2020 strike and other work stoppages, according to the port authority.
“A halt in port operations and the diversion of goods to competing and more distant ports have direct and serious repercussions for the economy of Greater Montreal, for Canadian businesses that depend on international trade and, ultimately, for the supply of goods and products to citizens,” the port authority said in a statement in February.
Canadian industry groups have warned of the potential impacts of another strike, urging Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government “to use all available resources to facilitate reconciliation” between the port employers and longshore workers.
“This is a precarious time for Canada as we slowly move towards economic recovery, and further labor disruptions present a direct threat to the health of Canadian businesses and their employees,” the Canadian Chamber of Commerce said in a statement Wednesday. “The livelihoods of tens of thousands of workers are at risk as a result of labor action, and supply chains simply cannot sustain further shutdowns.”
FreightWaves staff writer Joanna Marsh contributed to this report..