Montreal's port shut down as longshore workers launch unlimited strike

The strike, which kicked off at 7 a.m., shut down activity at Canada's second-largest port with the exception of grain transport and shipments to Newfoundland and Labrador.

Union spokesperson says conflict largely over work-life balance

Longshore workers have been working without a contract since the end of 2018. After holding two four-day strikes this summer, they are now on strike for an indefinite period. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Longshore workers at the Port of Montreal launched a general, unlimited strike Monday morning, as negotiations with their employer remain in deadlock.

The strike, which began at 7 a.m., shut down activity at Canada's second-largest port with the exception of grain transport and shipments to Newfoundland and Labrador.

The labour action by more than 1,100 workers comes after a series of temporary strikes by the Canadian Union of Public Employees over the past six weeks saw several ships diverted to ports in Halifax, New York City and Saint John, N.B.

Union spokesperson Michel Murray confirmed that CUPE Local 375 is going ahead with its plan to strike after giving 72-hour notice last week.

Murray said on Radio-Canada's Tout un matin that "there's no good moment" for a strike, and that containers with medical supplies will still be allowed to pass through the port.

In a statement, the Port Authority of Montreal raised concern about the timing of the strike, given the unfolding economic crisis caused by the pandemic.

"A prolonged stoppage in port operations has major repercussions for Canadian businesses that depend on international trade and, ultimately, for the supply of goods and services to the public," the statement said.

Ships destined for the port have already been rerouted for the past two weeks as the longshore workers staged two four-day strikes.

In response to the daytime strikes, their employer, Maritime Employers Association, cut overtime rates last week.

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

Workers hold picket signs outside the Port of Montreal on Monday. The local longshore workers union has launched a general strike. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Murray described the strike as a pressure tactic as the union continues to negotiate with the Maritime Employers Association.

The association said it contacted the union Sunday night in hope of avoid the strike, and that it still believes an agreement can be reached through binding arbitration.

"The line of communication remains open," said a spokesperson for the association.

In 2015, longshore workers across Quebec earned an average of $110,000 before benefits, according to figures from the province's Labour Ministry.

Murray says the conflict is largely over work-life balance, with union members having to work late nights, early mornings and holidays.

"If they earn this salary, it's because they're available seven days a week," he said. "There is no stability for the family life of a longshoreman"

The Montreal Port Authority says nearly 6,300 businesses depend on the port, with about 19,000 jobs linked to its operations.

With files from Radio-Canada's Tout un matin and The Canadian Press