Short-lived port strike creates shipping backlog in Montreal


Shipping companies are beginning the herculean task of pushing through the backlog created by the Montreal port strike.

This time it should go better because crop shippers learned a lot from the last time just half a year ago.

“It’s probably going to take several weeks,” said Greg Northey, director of industry relations for Pulse Canada, which has been lobbying the federal government to resolve the dispute.

“Likely not as long as in the fall.”

The federal government passed strike-ending legislation April 30 and longshoremen returned to work May 1.

Federal labour minister Filomena Tassi said mediators plan to meet with the two sides soon to form a new, lasting contract. The legislation prevents any further work stoppages.

The longshoremen, represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees, denounced the legislation.

“Prime Minister Trudeau has just sent a strong and clear message to all employers across the country: no need to negotiate in good faith with your workers because if the going gets tough, we’ll be there to support you,” said CUPE president Mark Hancock.

The short strike followed a long truce agreed between port employers and unionized workers that ended a 10-day strike that began in late August 2020.

The workers have been without a contract since 2018, so the culmination in a lockout or strike was not a shock to shipping industries, such as crops and meat, but the exact timing was not known for the first strike.

That led to significant backlogs and a slow catch-up afterward, which Northey estimated to have taken three to four months.

The second strike, which lasted half as long, was not as disruptive because shippers got used to re-routing shipments through the ports of Halifax, Quebec City and even Vancouver to avoid becoming trapped on the docks of Montreal.

It was also probably less damaging because the truce’s end had a fixed date, so shippers could plan for possible disruptions after that point.

However, those re-routings cost shippers, which tends to feed back to prairie crop prices.

And some marketers probably delayed sales or did not make the sales they previously expected to make in order to avoid strike complications.

Now, with the legislation, shippers have nearby certainty that there will not be port labour disruptions any time soon. That’s good, Northey said.

However, in the long run, pulse and other agricultural export industries want labour disputes to be handled better and are calling on the federal government to step in earlier or more clearly.

“They have a responsibility to keep industrial peace. They have all the tools at their disposal to make sure the two sides don’t come to this,” said Northey.

Labour legislation gives the federal government a number of ways to prevent disputes from reaching the lockout/strike situation, something crop shippers think needs to be more quickly done. These two strikes and the uncertainty surrounding them for most of a year caused not only temporary costs to shippers and shipments, but also lasting damage to Canada’s reputation as a reliable supplier of food.

“That’s the kind of labour certainty we need because we can’t hop from labour crisis to labour crisis. We’re fragile enough.”

While the government has many levers in its hands, it is possible that there are gaps in federal legislation in terms of more proactively resolving conflicts before shutdowns occur.

“If there’s some kind of weakness in legislation, we’re going to start looking at that,” said Northey.

While each labour dispute in the grain export system is distinct, crop shippers believe that the government needs a better overall approach to them.

“There’s going to be another one,” said Northey.

“They’re always coming up.”