Montreal

Port of Montreal longshore workers to launch unlimited strike Monday

The announcement follows days of tension between the workers and their employers, as negotiations on salary, schedule and overall working conditions have broken down.

Union to extend Montreal port strike indefinitely — after two four-day strikes — as tensions escalate

Port of Montreal workers embroiled in a labour dispute surrounding wages and workings hours say they intend to go on strike Monday. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

The union representing Montreal longshore workers has announced its intention to launch an unlimited strike as of Monday morning. 

The announcement follows days of tension between the workers and their employers, as negotiations on salary, schedule and overall working conditions have broken down.

In the last two weeks, the workers staged two four-day strikes. The strike that would begin next week has no planned end date, for now.

"The ball is in the bosses' court,'' union spokesman Michel Murray said at a news conference, several hours after CUPE filed notice of the indefinite general strike.

The plan will be set in motion if "no truce agreement'' is reached by Sunday, he said.

Since Monday, ships have been diverted from the Port of Montreal to other ports including Halifax, New York and Saint John. 

Union members affiliated with the Canadian Union of Public Employees said that during the four-day strikes, they would not provide any mooring services, except for supplies to Newfoundland and Labrador and for grain vessels, in order to comply with a decision rendered by the Canada Industrial Relations Board.

The Maritime Employers Association said in a release it is "disappointed'' that "even after 65 negotiation sessions since September 2018, we are still at an impasse.''

Association CEO Martin Tessier said he has proposed a counter-offer to negotiate in good faith over the next 45 to 60 days, culminating in binding arbitration if the two sides remain at loggerheads.

The union has rejected the offer, he said.

A port shutdown would disrupt the flow of medical supplies, automotive parts and myriad other goods and wind up raising prices for consumers, Tessier said.

"The auto industry, they are yelling big-time right now. And even safety equipment linked to COVID-19, the PPE — the personal protective equipment  — and drugs and medical equipment will slow down.''

The fast-paced, tightly synchronized flow of just-in-time logistics could magnify the impact of any derailments for shippers.

"Instead of going through the Port of Montreal, you need to go through New York. Then you need to use longer routes, trains. That is going to increase the costs,'' Tessier said in an interview. "Who's going to pay at the end of all that? Probably you and I.''

The CUPE labour action revolves largely around wages, scheduling and work-life balance, with longshoremen routinely working 19 days out of 21 due to heavy traffic through the port, according to the union.

The 1,125 longshoremen, foremen and maintenance workers on the waterfront in Montreal have been without a collective agreement for nearly two years.

In 2015, longshoremen across Quebec earned an average of $110,000 before benefits, according to figures from the province's labour ministry. The benefits package for Montreal longshoremen amounts to $22,000 annually, including a defined-benefit pension plan paid for by the employer.

Tensions between the two parties have ratcheted up in July and August.

A little over a week ago, Montreal police launched an investigation after managers accused some of the workers of attacking them. 

The union says the longshore workers had moved their picket line to the parking lot and that the situation escalated when a vehicle driven by a security guard assigned to protect the managers pushed through the picket line.

On Monday, the employers association informed the union it would cut overtime rates for work during evenings, weekends and nights, as the number of those shifts had increased due to daytime strikes.

The association says its preferred option remains negotiation and that it submitted a "counter-proposal for a truce,'" but that the union's executive committee rejected it.

The two sides have been trying to come to a new agreement since 2018.

The Montreal Port Authority said in a statement Friday afternoon that it was deeply concerned about the strike, especially given the already devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing economic crisis.

It said a smoothly functioning port is essential to the good functioning of the economy and the supply of essential supplies — like food — and warned of "major repercussions for Canadian businesses."

The port authority urged the federal government to do whatever is necessary to help the parties reach an agreement as soon as possible.

With files from The Canadian Press

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