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Partial strike at Port of Montreal as union, employers dig in

Longshoremen to refuse overtime and weekend work after pay guarantee suspended.

Longshoremen at the Port of Montreal are set to begin a partial strike on Tuesday after their employers moved to suspend guaranteed minimum pay in response to an 11% plunge in cargo volumes.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 375 stopped short of calling a full-blown strike at Canada’s second busiest port. Longshoremen won’t work overtime on weekdays or at all on the weekends, but will handle containers related to the pandemic and provide grain offloading services.  

The union’s move came after the Maritime Employers Association (MEA) announced it will suspend providing a guaranteed base pay for longshoremen and will instead compensate them for the actual hours worked. The MEA, in a statement, characterized it as a cost-cutting move in response to the drop in cargo volumes “caused by the uncertainty and anxiety triggered by the labor-relations situation.”

The continued discord between the MEA and longshoremen isn’t much of a surprise. A seven-month truce between the two sides ended in March with little to show for it apart from a contract offer that longshoremen overwhelmingly rejected. 

The two sides agreed to a truce after a series of limited strikes culminating with a 12-day walkout at the port in 2020.

Port of Halifax bracing for another strike in Montreal

The Port of Halifax along with terminal operators and CN (NYSE: CNI) railway have been monitoring developments in Montreal and preparing for the possibility of another strike, said Halifax Port Authority spokesperson Lane Farguson. 

“We’re continuing to do what we can to prepare,” Farguson told FreightWaves.

Halifax, Canada’s fourth busiest port, saw a surge of diversions during the 2020 strike. While industry groups have reported that diversions to Halifax have been happening for weeks, Farguson said the port has yet to see any significant impacts. 

Farguson noted that while there’s no evidence yet of a Montreal-related surge, the port has continued to see robust volumes in cargo related to COVID demand. 

If the strike brings another rush on Halifax, Farguson said the port and its partners will do their best to accommodate it — but will prioritize regularly scheduled services. 

“It’s important to understand that supply chains weren’t designed to handle that level of strain,” Farguson said, referring to COVID-related demand combined with a major labor disruption.

Pressure mounts on feds to avert strike

With a full strike becoming increasingly likely in Montreal, pressure is mounting on the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to step in to avert another costly disruption.

“We must prevent a repeat of last summer,” Dennis Darby, president and CEO of the Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters association said in a statement.

The association, which represents over 2,500 companies, said its members have already spent millions of dollars to divert cargo to Halifax. Darby said that a full strike would be damaging and called on Trudeau’s government to intervene.

“As governments are investing billions of dollars to restart the economy, it doesn’t make any sense to allow a slowdown of operations at the Port of Montreal,” said Darby. “This is why we need the federal government to intervene.”

Trudeau’s government has been reluctant to take steps beyond helping mediate during past labor disputes. One notable exception: when the government used back-to-work legislation to end 2018’s Canada Post strike. 

Click for more FreightWaves articles by Nate Tabak

Nate Tabak, Border and North America Correspondent

Nate Tabak is a Toronto-based journalist and producer who covers cybersecurity and cross-border trucking and logistics for FreightWaves. He spent seven years reporting stories in the Balkans and Eastern Europe as a reporter, producer and editor based in Kosovo. He previously worked at newspapers in the San Francisco Bay Area, including the San Jose Mercury News. He graduated from UC Berkeley, where he studied the history of American policing. Contact Nate at ntabak@freightwaves.com.

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