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Striking Montreal Dockworkers Facing Federal Back-to-Work Order

Canadian House of Commons approves back to work order for Montreal strike
Striking dockworkers could be rodered back as early as Saturday (Syndicat des débardeurs - SCFP section locale 375 photo)

Published Apr 29, 2021 4:44 PM by The Maritime Executive

Canada’s House of Commons followed through on the earlier announcements that the federal government intended to intervene to stop the strike by Montreal’s dockworkers. Conservatives joined with the Liberal government early Thursday morning to pass by a vote of 255-61 a bill ordering the dockworkers to return to work immediately. The bill now comes up for a vote on Friday morning in the Canadian Senate, which could order the workers back on the job as of 12:01 a.m. Saturday morning.

Canada’s Labor Minister Filomena Tassi had announced that unlike the August 2020 strike, the federal government was going to intervene. In the debate in the House of Commons, she said the current strike could cost the Canadian economy as much as C$100 per week and indirectly would impact thousands of Canadian jobs. The federal government said it felt compelled to act this time because the sides remained far apart and there seemed to be little hope for a quick settlement in the contract negotiations that have been off and on for nearly three years.

The legislation working its way forward not only would not only order the striking dockworkers back-to-work but also bars future strikes until a new collective bargaining agreement has been resolved. Canadian Union of Public Employees Local (CUPE) 375 and the Maritime Employers Association, which represents the terminal operators in the Port of Montreal, have been without a collective bargaining Agreement since December 2018.

Union representatives put messages out on social media saying that their “negotiating committee is still at the negotiating table with the mediators,” in an effort to stall the legislation. It briefly appeared that the federal government might hold back on its efforts, but citing the dangers of stopping trade and impacting the flow of medicine and medical supplies while the pandemic is still spreading across Canada was ultimately cited as a key reason to move forward with the back-to-work order. 

“Throughout this process, we were clear we would return to work if the employer walked back their unfair, unilateral changes to our members’ work conditions,” said CUPE National President Mark Hancock. “But it was obvious the employer preferred to avoid bargaining altogether, and they successfully duped the Liberals into tipping the scales in their favor,” CUPE wrote in its public statement.

Predictably the union responded by harshly lashing out at the Trudeau government after the passage of the act in the House of Commons. “The Liberals have shown yet again that when the chips are down, they’re no friend to Canadian workers,” said CUPE National Secretary-Treasurer Charles Fleury. “The courts say time and time again that back-to-work legislation violates Charter rights, and Mr. Trudeau has made it clear today that he does not respect the Charter that his father brought in as prime minister.”

The International Transport Workers’ Federation backed up the union with a strongly-worded statement criticizing the Trudeau government. “It was now up to the Canadian Senate to block the bill from becoming law to avoid contravention of the country’s constitution and international obligations,” said Paddy Crumlin, International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) president and Dockers’ Section chair.

The employers, represented by the MEBA have been demanding improved flexibility saying that the port needs to be able to adapt to changes in the shipping industry especially due to the pressures created by the pandemic. For its part, in addition to wages, the union is demanding changes to the work schedules for the dockworkers saying that the old regimes were unduly demanding impacting the worker’s family time. 

The Montreal Port Authority recognized the federal government’s efforts highlighting what it said was its essential role in the economy as the second busiest port in the country. The port estimated that a prolonged strike would cost the economy as much as C$25 million per day and noted the partial strike was already causing backlogs and forcing shippers to divert cargo.

Earlier in April, the union had begun refusing overtime and weekend work. On April 23, they filed a notice saying they were extending to an unlimited general strike as of last Monday, blaming the employers who they said were arbitrarily enforcing new work schedules on the dockworkers.