By Alex Binkley

The prospect of another strike by Port of Montreal dockworkers is a serious threat to the Canadian economy and should be ringing alarm bells in Ottawa, say Canadian International Freight Forwarders Association (CIFFA) and Freight Management Association of Canada (FMA).

Negotiations between the Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents the workers, and Maritime Employers Association broke off in mid-February. Operations will continue until a truce on work stoppages ends March 21, and a strike or lockout could begin three days later. It was negotiated to end a 19-day strike last year that disrupted shipping through the port, Canada’s second busiest. “We have still not fully recovered from the strike in the Port last August, which according to Statistics Canada cost wholesalers $600 million in sales,” said Bruce Rodgers, CIFFA’s Executive Director. “To have another interruption now will really stick a knife in the Canadian economy.”

Shippers have already begun to reroute their traffic to other ports in anticipation of a new strike, he said. “This is very serious for Montreal since some of that traffic may not return. But it’s worse for importers and exporters who depend on the port – alternative routes are not capable of meeting the demand. If the strike goes ahead, we’ll see delays and lost business at a very significant level.”

FMA President John Corey said the failure to negotiate a new labour agreement should not lead to “a total cessation of service at the port. The shutdown of an essential element of the Canadian supply chain is not an acceptable consequence of a failed labour negotiation. “We recognize the right of workers to collective bargaining but that right does not extend to holding Canadian shippers’ hostage and hurting the Canadian economy as a whole,” he said in a letter to Prime Minister Trudeau and other key cabinet ministers.

FMA is concerned “with the widespread damage that will result from an interruption in service in the event the parties cannot resolve their differences. We are looking to the federal government for leadership in these types of labour disputes which interrupt the supply chain which is essential to a healthy Canadian economy.” A strike would hurt Quebec, Ontario supply chains in the U.S. Midwest, and lead to many ocean-going vessels discharging their cargoes at other ports in Canada and U.S. “The implications for reliable delivery are enormous, as the rail capacity is significantly less and trucking distances much greater.

Rodgers said, “Port activities are essential to keep the economy running smoothly and for the supply of food, PPE and vaccine supplies. Maritime transportation workers have been deemed to be essential worker providers and this labour impasse cannot be allowed to hold the supply chain hostage.”

Montreal Port Authority has found that several Quebec and Ontario businesses that use the services of the port, including some that move critical cargo to combat COVID-19, are already diverting containerized goods to other ports, and that others are planning to do so if a new work stoppage occurs soon.

Rodgers said, “The port is an essential service. Port activities are essential to keep the economy running smoothly and for the supply of food and other basic goods, among other things. 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.”

Labour Minister Filomena Tassi says two senior department officials were added to the team assisting in the negotiations. “After seven days of meetings, the mediators suspended face-to-face meetings with the parties after determining that the gap between the parties is too significant at this time to conclude a collective agreement. I have asked the mediators to continue to be in close contact with the parties. If their positions change in a way that is likely to lead to an agreement, the federal mediators will reconvene the parties as soon as possible.”