St. Lawrence Seaway Backlog Builds as Strike Continues

Ships anchored and awaiting the end of the Seaway strike (Unifor)

Published Oct 26, 2023 12:37 AM by The Maritime Executive

Traffic on the St. Lawrence Seaway has been suspended since Saturday due to a strike on the Canadian side, and dozens of ships are stacked up waiting at anchor. In a statement Wednesday, the Chamber of Marine Commerce warned that the strike was costing the U.S. and Canadian economies up to $70 million per day - and that only about 50 days remain before the waterway has to close for the winter. 

The shutdown has affected a significant volume of traffic. According to longtime Seaway ship watcher Michael Folsom, 41 ships are currently at anchor on both ends of the Seaway, not counting vessels waiting at piers. Jean Aubry-Morin, VP of external relations for the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp. (SLSMC), told Politico that 35 vessels are currently affected by the shutdown. 

Among the vessels potentially affected by the strike is the Freedom-class littoral combat ship USS Marinette, which was just commissioned last month. It is moored in Cleveland and is unable to reach the Atlantic due to the Seaway shutdown, according to USNI. The U.S. Navy has not commented on whether the situation has any effect on the vessel's operational plans. 

Calls for a swift solution

The Chamber of Marine Commerce - which represents U.S. and Canadian shipping companies with business on the Seaway - called for SLSMC, the union and the Canadian government to take "all necessary steps to resolve the dispute now and resume traffic on the Seaway."

Labor Minister Seamus O'Regan told Politico on Tuesday that the two sides would have to find a deal at the bargaining table, and that the federal government would not impose a top-down solution. 

“They know that’s where the deal has to be made,” he said. “But for too long it was short-circuited — that government would intervene and they wouldn’t have to do the hard work at the table."

On Tuesday, O'Regan's department called Unifor and the SLSMC to meet in Toronto for mediated talks. The discussions will begin Friday, and Unifor said that it will comply with the call. 

"We negotiated in good faith right up to the last moment, but we cannot allow workers' rights to be compromised. We remain open to discussion and hope that the employer will reconsider its position for the good of all," said Unifor Quebec director Daniel Clouthier in a statement. 

In a statement released Wednesday, the U.S. Great Lakes Ports Association called the strike a "hot mess" and called for Canada to "fix it." 

"The casual pace at which the parties and the Canadian government are approaching the resolution of this crisis is an outrage. There is no urgency. It is a slap in the face to the many Americans and Canadians who are suffering job loss," said the association. "None of these companies have a seat at the table. None of their employees have a voice, yet they suffer."

As an interim measure, SLSMC has appealed to Canada's labor commission to compel the union to provide workers for grain shipments while the talks continue, and an administrative review is under way. About half of the Seaway's cargo (by value) is in outbound grain shipments, and Canada's autumn wheat harvest is about to begin.

"In a matter of days, many farmers will have nowhere to deliver grain to and we risk the grain staying on the field too long to be viable,” said Brendan Byrne, chair of the Grain Farmers of Ontario. “We need governments at every level to do whatever they can to ensure the grain keeps moving."