Montreal

Montreal port workers and employers at an impasse as strike drags on

Employers at the Port of Montreal say they are at an impasse with striking dockworkers, contradicting the federal labour minister's upbeat assessment of talks as the port shutdown hits 10 days.

Striking dockworkers have only agreed to move COVID-19-related cargo, union says

Employers at the Port of Montreal say they are at an impasse with striking dockworkers. (Jean-Claude Taliana/CBC)

Signs of potential progress between employers at the Port of Montreal and striking dockworkers emerged on Wednesday evening, 10 days into the port shutdown.

In a text message sent to Radio-Canada, the Maritime Employers Association (MEA) said the two parties had agreed to meet and that on Thursday there would be no replacement workers, which have been a particular sore point for the union.

Earlier Wednesday at a news conference, MEA head Martin Tessier described the progress as "very slow," in contrast to federal Labour Minister Filomena Tassi's depiction Monday of "encouraging progress made between the two parties."

Ottawa has so far declined to intervene despite pleas from industry groups and the Ontario and Quebec governments.

Tessier said he has asked the union to move 477 containers out of about 11,500 now on the waterfront in order to clear essential goods such as pharmaceuticals and medical equipment, as well as perishable foods and hazardous materials.

The union has only agreed to move COVID-19-related cargo, meaning managers or replacement workers will likely handle some of the others, Tessier said.

"We told them if we need to do it, we're going to do … We need to make sure we're not taking the public as hostages."

Michel Murray, a spokesman with the Canadian Union of Public Employees, said dockworkers feel the situation is unproductive because the employers association refuses to reveal the exact contents of the containers.

Martin Tessier, president and CEO of the Maritime Employers Association, said he has told the union that if essential goods need to be moved, managers or replacement workers will do it. The union has agreed only to deal with cargo related to COVID-19. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

"If there are four containers of Coco Chanel perfume that are due for Quebec, those four containers will remain at the terminal," Murray said.

"It is not part of the essential services … If he identifies (the containers) to us, we'll be able to say which ones we're ready to do," Murray said.

In the Wednesday text message, the MEA said the meeting with the union would be to discuss the contents of containers needing to be moved.

The longshore workers have said from the outset of the strike, on Aug. 10, that any pandemic-related freight can leave the port. For the rest, the union cites a June decision by the Canada Industrial Relations Board on what constitutes an essential service at the Port of Montreal.

The strike by 1,125 dockworkers, who have been without a collective agreement since September 2018, revolves largely around wages and scheduling.

Longshore workers are paid $36 an hour for a minimum of 32 hours per week, even if they don't work an hour — which is rare — Tessier said. The minimum threshold rises to 36 hours after five years and 40 hours after 10 years.

Annual earnings average out to about $120,000, plus a benefits package that amounts to $22,000 annually, including a defined-benefit pension plan paid for by the employer, he said.

The obligation constantly to be on call remains an impediment in negotiations.

"You never know what will happen with a ship. They can be stuck because of ice, they can be stuck because of a storm," Tessier explained.

"These guys, they work outside. During the summer it's really hot. During the winter it can be really cold," he acknowledged. "This is why they have very good compensation."

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