Nfld. & Labrador

'It's horrible,': Commuters wait hours as strike interrupts some N.L. ferry routes

Tuesday marked the first day of five ferry runs moving into essential service mode, as a labour dispute between ferry captains and the provincial government took hold.

Captains on strike after no deal reached with provincial government for new contract, pay raise

The Hazel McIsaac connects Long Island with Pilley's Island, and is one of five routes operating on an essential services schedule as of Tuesday. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC News)

As the first day of a ferry captains' strike in Newfoundland and Labrador takes hold, some intraprovincial ferry routes have shifted to limited runs, causing delays, headaches and concerns in the communities they serve.

Five ferry runs are affected and have moved to essential services runs only, including one of the province's busiest: the route between Portugal Cove and Bell Island.

On Bell Island, its mayor said the lineup to catch the day's first crossing, at 5:25 am., began around 3 a.m., and that people arriving later were probably out of luck.

"There was a lot of people caught with their pants down, socks down, this morning," said Mayor Gary Gosine, who said he worries for the large number of residents who commute off the island to work and those who may need medical attention overnight if a problem were to arise.

"I am very concerned for the people here, and the community."

The union representing the captains, the Canadian Merchant Service Guild, were set to strike on Aug. 21, after negotiations stalled with the provincial government over a new collective agreement, but that deadline was extended at the last minute to Tuesday. The captains have been without a contract and a wage increase since 2012, and want raises in line with those of the other ferry workers.

The union's lawyer confirmed Tuesday morning the strike was going ahead, although as the ferries are deemed an essential service, not all captains would be allowed to go off the job, causing disruptions to only five of the captains' routes.

Some commuters in Portugal Cove lined up hours ahead of the next scheduled ferry to Bell Island on Monday. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

Some commuters lined up hours ahead of the next scheduled run from Portugal Cove on Monday afternoon. 

Alicia Manning said the strike is going to be difficult for everyone needing the service, especially teachers and educators. 

"I'm hoping that it won't drag on, especially with school starting. They have no other choice but to do something for the teachers," Manning said, noting there are teachers in her family who require the service to get to work on the Portugal Cove side, while the principal of St. Augustine's Elementary on Bell Island relies on the service heading the other way.

James Purcell echoed Manning's comments, saying it's the people who have to get to work, and those trying to return home from work, who will be the most affected.  

"There are times they'll get off work over here, probably 3:30 p.m., and they'll come here and they won't get home until 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. at night," he said. "It's horrible."

Gosine said he hopes the strike won't last too long, adding that communication between both the province and the striking ferry captains will be key in getting a deal done.

"I hope that the government realizes what's going on here. As a result of their waiting and not giving in, they're holding every community that is serviced by a boat in the province ransom," he said.

'Terrible situation' on Fogo 

The run serving Fogo Island and Change Islands has been reduced to a single crossing — anyone who didn't make it off the islands to Newfoundland at 7 a.m. Tuesday will have to wait until Wednesday.

That's an unacceptable setback to the communities where the summer tourism season was just finding its feet again after being hit hard by the pandemic, said Town of Fogo Island Mayor Wayne Collins.

"It's a terrible situation that we're subject to, and honestly, it's going to be devastating to the economy," said Collins.

We're gonna see a vast impact over the next few days if this continues.- Wayne Collins

Collins said he and his council had been asking the province for more crossings in case the strike took effect, and doesn't understand why Bell Island's run gets four round-trips a day to Fogo's one.

"Why the difference? We have an economy here with many large commercial vehicles travelling to and from the island, with fish products and what have you," he said.

Bell Island's mayor says there were long lineups for the day's first crossing on the MV Legionnaire, as it moves into an essential service schedule. (Twitter)

While the ferry captains are "very special people," Collins said the strike action was "sort of holding us at a ransom" and he didn't understand why the province was allowing any disruption.

"We've impressed upon the minister, the new transportation minister, and I feel the new premier has to get involved. There has to be some provision there to make change to improve upon this."

On Monday some commuters lined up at 11:30 a.m., a full eight hours ahead of the crossing. 

"You have doctors appointments and you have to wait all day," said Laura Penney, a resident of Fogo Island. "It's not good at all."

The community's freight delivery is also heavily affected by the delays.

Corbett Cull, who manages the island's Foodland grocery store, said deliveries are already delayed by a full day, while other freight drivers may end up having to spend two nights on Fogo Island because of the single crossing.  

A fair deal is there: province

A CBC request to speak to the transportation minister was relayed to Steve Crocker, the president of the province's Treasury Board.

"I feel for the people who are affected by this today," Crocker said, calling the strike "an added distraction, an added issue and an added pressure" on small businesses.

Gosine said any tourism coming to Bell Island from staycationers has been effectively halted.

"They're not going to wait all day. Anyone that's even essential, they get in Portugal Cove at 11 a.m. or 12 p.m., they got to wait until 5 p.m. before they get back," he said.

"And the people coming over early in the morning, they don't go back until the evening. So then you got to arrange for businesses to open, the overtime involved. So all of that creates problems … creates headaches."

But the province appears to be standing firm during the first day of the strike, as Crocker gave no details of when the two sides last met or if any further talks were planned.

"We're not going to negotiate in public. All I will say is we're confident that we have a fair offer on the table and we would hope the guild would take a second look at that offer, " said Crocker.

Treasury Board president Steve Crocker says the province isn't giving any details on negotiations. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

In the meantime, Collins worries about what could happen if there's a medical emergency, and what any extended disruption will mean for his island's economy.

"We're gonna see a vast impact over the next few days if this continues," he said, noting that while commercial traffic gets priority, some business will be lost if truckers have to overnight on the island.

"There's very few trucking companies are going to contend with that, when they got business elsewhere that they can avail of."

The other three routes affected are the run between Burgeo, Grey River and Ramea, Pilley's Island and Long Island, and between Burnside and St. Brendan's.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Matt McCann and Cecil Haire


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