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Montreal dockers and employers seek negotiated strike settlement

Hopes of a solution to the Montreal dockers dispute increased yesterday as unions and the Maritime Employers Association (MEA) sat down to serious negotiations with the government’s Labour Minister Filomena Tassi, who previously said she would not intervene, acting as an arbitrator.

Tensions once again increased over the last few days as the MEA threatened to bring in outside labour to move some 477 containers of mainly surgical or medical protective equipment currently among the 11,000 containers stranded on the dockside.

Sources in Canada told Container News that the MEA had “threatened to bring in scabs to move 477 ‘cans’ [containers] but then they backed down and called both unions in for discussions separately.”

Local reporter, Leo Ryan, at the Maritime Magazine based in Montreal, reported that the unions had now agreed to move the 477 containers of “Covid-related cargo.”

A further cooling of tensions was also noted by Karl Blackburn CEO at the Quebec Council of Employers (Conseil du patronat du Québec or CPQ), which is also a member of the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal (CCMM) which called for government intervention in the strike on 10 August.

Blackburn confirmed the negotiations were in progress. He said, “For the moment, simply discussions with the federal government to propose a truce and then use an arbitrator, that is to say the solution that I presented last week.”

The two unions, the International Longshoremen’s Union Local 375 (CUPE) and the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) Local 1657 (Checkers), have been in dispute with the MEA since the autumn of 2018 when negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement came to a halt, with the existing deal due to expire at the end of that year.

Dockers have since been working on the old agreement while attempting to negotiate a new deal. In the intervening period, the MEA asked the Canada Industrial Labour Relations Board to declare longshoremen as essential workers, effectively prohibiting strike action. In a ruling that took 18 months to make the CIRB ruled against the MEA in June this year, effectively opening the way for unions to take industrial action.

Further negotiations and limited strikes during July this year failed to find a solution to the differences between employers and employees, mainly over pay and conditions of work. With dockers complaining of short notice from employers on their rosters, leaving them little time to rest or to contribute to family life.

Employers then angered unions by cutting unsocial hours pay, effectively reducing dockers’ income, by up to 50% in some cases.

Employers have argued to Container News, that the dockers are extremely well remunerated precisely because of the unsocial aspect of the work, and that if longshoremen want better conditions, then they should expect less pay. “Something has to give,” said a spokeswoman.

Finally, the patience of the unions ran out with the MEA and the unions called an all out strike from 10 August. Employers asked the government to intervene in the dispute and the labour minister Filomena Tassi said that negotiation was the best way out of the impasse, indicating that the government would not intervene.

However, Container News now understands from sources close to the discussions that the government is acting as arbitrator in the dispute and there are hopes of a breakthrough in discussions over the coming days. “Some productive bargaining might begin,” said one source.

Nick Savvides
Managing Editor

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