The Maritime Employers Association (MEA) on Wednesday called for a truce to end the longshore workers’ strike and get cargo moving again at the Port of Montreal.
MEA President and CEO Martin Tessier said during a press conference that while a negotiated resolution is the goal, 477 containers, some holding perishable goods, sit at the Port of Montreal and need to move now.
“I met with the union. I gave them a letter telling them that we need to move some very important goods that are critical for the pandemic, for the economy and for the public in general,” Tessier said.
Tessier said he did not know how many of the containers were refrigerated units or how long they had been sitting at the port, but “we are going to lose some of the food and pharmaceuticals.”
Wednesday marked the 10th day of the latest Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 375 strike. It’s the fourth walkout staged by the 1,125 longshore workers since the beginning of July.
The Port of Montreal said in an update on its website that berthing services and cargo handling normally provided by dockworkers are suspended at several Port of Montreal terminals. Not affected are liquid bulk handling, the Oceanex service at the Bickerdike Terminal and the Viterra grain terminal.
Tessier said the union also has been asked to move some bulk goods, namely sugar.
“Right now we are not able to fulfill the needs at this point in time. I don’t want to alarm anyone, but we need to start thinking about moving sugar,” he said.
The MEA has not asked for federal intervention to help end the strike, Tessier said, noting that he did meet with government officials, including Labor Minister Filomena Tassi and Transport Minister Marc Garneau on July 31. “They explained to me that they don’t have any intention to intervene and I should work harder and focus and try to get a negotiated deal and this is what [we’ve been] trying to do since that date.”
He said the employers association “prefers a negotiated solution in order to ensure that neither party is taken hostage and this solution is a truce with an obligation of results, which can take many forms,” including binding arbitration.
This walkout differs from the three others this summer in that CUPE has not said when union labor intends to return to work. The previous strikes had scheduled starts and stops. First there was an announced 40-hour work stoppage from July 2 to 4. Then the longshore workers were off the job for four days, from July 28 to 31. Another 72-hour strike began at 7 a.m. Aug. 3.
A bone of contention for CUPE reportedly is port labor’s work-life balance.
“It is true that the longshoremen are available to work 19 out of 21 days,” Tessier said. “It’s not true that everybody’s working 19 out of 21 days.”
He said the longshoremen perform physical labor in sometimes bad weather and for that, as well as the 19-day availability, they are well compensated, earning about C$140,000 in salary and bonuses.
“From the past five years, the volume here in Montreal increased and people are working more than what they were used to working in the past, working probably on average 16 or 17 days out of 21,” Tessier said.
Work schedules can be revised, but containers have to be moved when ships come in so the Port of Montreal does not permanently lose business, he said.
“What we need to realize [is] our industry is competing with the Port of New York, Port of Baltimore, Port of Savannah and we need to make sure that we perform in order to keep the cargo in Montreal. In order to perform, we need to turn around all the goods between 24 and 72 hours,” Tessier said. “We cannot say to a ship that is arriving in Montreal, ‘We’re going to park you there, you’re going to wait two or three days because we don’t have manpower to support the loading and unloading of the vessel.’”
But for now, both negotiations and cargo are stalled and the Port of Montreal’s reputation is negatively impacted with each day the strike continues, according to Tessier.
“At this point in time, the negotiations are not really progressing. We’re making very slow progress. We need to increase the pace at the negotiating table,” he said.
And shipping lines increasingly are diverting cargo to other Canadian ports.
The latest, announced Wednesday, is the MSC Leigh, with a capacity of 4,872 twenty-foot equivalent units and operated by Hapag-Lloyd, OOCL and MSC. It will be diverted from Montreal to the Port of Halifax. The Leigh, which originates in Antwerp, Belgium, is estimated to arrive in Nova Scotia on Aug. 28.
CUPE did not respond to a request for a reaction to statements Tessier made during Wednesday’s press conference.