Strike Threatens to Prematurely Close the St. Lawrence Seaway for 2023

St. Lawrence Seaway
Vessel in one of the 15 locks along the St. Lawrence Seaway (St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation)

Published Oct 19, 2023 5:59 PM by The Maritime Executive

Union members working on the Canadian operations of the St. Lawrence Seaway are poised to go out on strike at midnight on Saturday. They set today, October 19, as the deadline for their contract negotiations, with the management of the Seaway warning they would be forced to immediately close the route if the strike proceeds.

The potential strike comes at a critical time as shippers rush the end-of-season cargos out of the Great Lakes before the onset of winter and the closing of the vital seaway. October is considered to be the prime shipping season for grain from the Midwest and Canada. Each year more than 4,000 vessels move through the seaway system which connects the Atlantic via St. Lawrence River to the Great Lakes. The Seaway’s season begins in late March and runs till the onset of winter with more than 35 million metric tons of grain and other cargoes traveling along the route each year.

The negotiations are for the contract for the Canadian workers along the Seaway who are employed by the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation, a non-profit Canadian Corporation. The Canadians are responsible for the management and operation of 13 of the 15 locks between Montreal and Lake Erie. The U.S. side, run by the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation, manages other portions of the route but only controls two of the locks. The Seaway, which is concluding its 65th navigation season, crosses the international border 27 times along its route.

The union served a 72-hour notice of its intent to strike to the Canadian corporation yesterday, October 18. The 361 unionized employees, members of the Canadian labor union UNIFOR, have been without a contract since the prior one expired on March 31.

Union leaders admitted in their statement that it was a “drastic decision… underscoring the depth of the dissatisfaction and the imperative for a swift resolution to the ongoing disputes.” The union is seeking wage increases that reflect the cost of living saying that its members “have had enough,” as the talks dragged on. 

The two sides met in June with the help of a conciliator, but in August members of the supervisory and engineering group of workers in the union rejected a tentative agreement. They said they are standing with the maintenance, operations, and administrative employees, and after further talks in September, collectively 99 percent of the members voted last week to go out on strike. A further round of talks began on October 17 and is scheduled to end today, October 19.

The St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation has been warning shippers and vessel operators of the potential strike and the fact that their ships could become trapped. Yesterday, the Canadian management team reported that they “started implementing its detailed plan for an orderly and safe shutdown of the system.”

Last year, the Seaway began its process of closing at the beginning of December, with all vessels being directed to have cleared the system by December 20. With written permission, a few final transits took place till the end of the year.

Observers are warning if the strike proceeds and the seaway suspends operation, it would mark the end of the 2023 shipping season.