Montreal port strike imperils supply chains across Canada, Ottawa poised to legislate end to dispute

Monday's strike at Montreal's port was the second labour dispute there in less than a year. The federal labour minister signalled on Sunday she was prepared to legislate an end to the work stoppage.

The strike has effectively halted operations at Canada's second largest port

Workers began picketing Monday morning at several Port of Montreal facilities. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Port of Montreal workers began an open-ended strike Monday morning, effectively halting operations at one of the country's busiest ports and threatening the supply chains of thousands of businesses.

It is the second labour dispute in less than a year at the port. A 12-day strike last August cost wholesalers an estimated $600 million in lost sales.

Under pressure from both the Ontario and Quebec governments, federal Labour Minister Filomena Tassi signalled on Sunday she was prepared to legislate an end to the work stoppage.

A mediation session got underway Monday, shortly after the strike began, but the union said the government's intention to legislate has killed the employer's incentive to reach a deal.

"I have no hope there will be a resolution today. The employer will just sit on their hands and wait to see the content of Minister Tassi's special legislation," said Michel Murray, a representative of local 375 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE).

"The government has completely unbalanced the relations between the two parties. They resorted to the atomic bomb."

The 1,150 dock workers have been without a contract since 2018. The union says the current dispute was triggered when their employer, the Maritime Employers Association (MEA), extended the workday without consulting them.

The MEA says it needs more flexibility from its workers to adapt to the changing demands on the port, which is the second largest in the country and a key transit point for goods destined for businesses in Eastern Canada. 

Port of Montreal dock workers have been without a contract for two years and have walked off the job in a strike that began Monday morning.  (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Politics of legislating end to the strike

On Monday, Quebec Labour Minister Jean Boulet re-iterated his government's support for federal intervention in the dispute. He also pointed out the Montreal port is an important entry point for medical supplies.

"We have to avoid the economic impact of such a labour conflict," Boulet said. "And it is also a question of the health and safety of Quebecers, the people in Ontario and for all people living in the north Atlantic territory."

But the process of passing back-to-work legislation is potentially politically fraught for the minority Liberal government.

Both the NDP and the Bloc Québécois indicated Monday they would oppose the bill. The Conservatives said they will decide whether to support it after the bill has been tabled and its contents made public.

All three parties accused the government of mishandling the conflict and letting it escalate to the point of a strike.

Bloc leader Yves-François Blanchet suggested the issue could be settled with a forceful phone call from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to both sides.

"The special law is not a solution. It is an admission of incompetence," Blanchet said Monday in Ottawa.

The earliest the government can table the bill is Tuesday. In 2018, when the Liberals passed legislation ending rotating strikes at Canada Post, it took roughly a week for the bill to make its way through Parliament. 

Uneasy at the idea of interfering with the workers' right to strike, senators subjected the bill to additional debate.

Tassi, the federal labour minister, said in a tweet Sunday that legislating an end to the conflict at the port is "our government's least-favoured option." But she said the two sides were still far apart.

With files from Jay Turnbull, Cathy Senay and Radio-Canada