As the port of Montreal ramps up longshore hiring to handle cargo growth, a hearing that began Monday will determine whether the longshoremen can strike or employers can stage a worker lockout if contract negotiations fail.
Talks between port employers and the union have been ongoing since September, with no resolution, in an effort to replace the six-year contract that expired on Dec. 31. Among the subjects discussed so far are a change in longshoremen work procedures to help port terminals adjust to the rise in cargo volumes, in particular a tripling of the percentage of shipments handled on weekends.
With no agreement on the contract, the longshoremen’s union, Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 375, on Dec. 16 sought — and was granted — authority from the rank and file to go on strike if necessary, although no such action has yet taken place. The move followed a complaint filed by the Maritime Employers Association (MEA) on Oct. 23 with the Canadian Industrial Relations Board (CIRB), arguing that the port of Montreal should be considered an “essential service,” and therefore not subject to a strike or a lockout.
At a CIRB hearing unfolding in Ottawa this week and next, the MEA and the union will provide testimony and arguments on whether the port is so important to providing foods, medicine, and other product to the area around Toronto and Montreal that a supply chain disruption due to industrial action or a lockout would excessively hurt public safety and security.
The two sides last negotiated a contract in 2012, but the port’s activity has surged since then and shipping patterns have shifted, putting stress on port resources and the workforce. The port workforce has grown from about 800 longshoremen to 1,100 over the same period, with 200 new hires since autumn. And whereas five years ago, the port handled only 5 percent of the annual containerized cargo on weekends, that share has since grown to 17 percent.
The rising cargo volume — spread equally between imports and exports — led to weeks of congestion at the start of the year, with truckers complaining of turn times of several hours. The terminals, in response, extended gate hours temporarily, from closing at about 3 pm to 11 pm. And in September, after port officials concluded that the extension had cut turn times, the terminals made the change permanent. The port is now trying to encourage truckers to handle more cargo in the evening hours because only about 20 percent of the cargo has shifted from daytime to evening pick up or delivery.
MEA and CUPE 375 were not available for comment.
Talks at the port have been contentious in the past. The union rank and file in July 2010 authorized a strike “at an opportune moment,” after 18 months of negotiations to renew the 2005 agreement. Two days later, the employers locked out longshoremen for several days, prompting some ocean carriers to divert ships to the port of Halifax.
The employers’ complaint to the CIRB follows a 2010 case in which the industrial relations board ruled that shipping service to Newfoundland was so important that it constituted an essential service, and the port should not be vulnerable to a strike or lockout.
‘Normal course of action’
No strike could take place while the previous contract was in place, and it can’t happen while the CIRB hearing is ongoing. And the original strike authorization was for 60 days, meaning the union would have to seek a second authorization on Feb. 17, if it wants to use the strategy.
However, the Canadian International Freight Forwarders Association (CIFFA) in January depicted the strike vote as a case of the union preparing to use “everything in its arsenal” to fight for its members, rather than a strike being likely. “The mandate to strike was expected, and is usually a normal course of action in the event that negotiations reach the point of impasse,” CIFFA said in a note to its members.
The employers’ CIRB complaint, if granted, would increase the employers’ leverage.
“The interruption or rupture of the supply chains would lead to stock-outs of drugs, food and other essential goods, as well as the loss of certain items,” the complaint says. “It is in the public and general interest that all stevedoring activities in the Port of Montreal be continued in the event of a strike or lockout, in order to mitigate the risks to health and public safety.”
The Shipping Federation of Canada and the chambers of commerce from Quebec and Montreal also filed complaints in the case similar to the employers’.
The union in its response urged the CIRB to reject the MEA’s position, calling it “unreasonable” and arguing that the ocean service to Newfoundland should be the only one considered to be “essential.”
“The MEA claim is abusive and equal to a complete denial of the right to strike recognized by our Constitution,” said Marie-Christine Morin, an attorney for the union. The union added that the complaint “is in direct conflict with the constitutional right to real bargaining, which includes the right to economically pressure the employer, including through a joint and legal work stoppage.”