St. Lawrence Seaway workers begin strike action, union says | CBC News

The St. Lawrence Seaway has shut down as hundreds of workers walked off the job Sunday.

The halt is expected to affect cargo shipments immediately along the artery that runs between Montreal and Lake Erie.

In a release shortly after midnight on Sunday, the union said they were unable to reach an agreement with the employer by the strike deadline, despite negotiations “right up to the last moment.”

“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,” Daniel Cloutier, Unifor’s Quebec director, said in a release.

Seeking wage increases

The union said this week that it remained “1,000 nautical miles apart” from management on wages — the key wedge in discussions — and that it was up to the employer to avoid any transit disruption.

“These are jobs that require intense training, a high level of understanding of the health and safety risks, and that carry enormous responsibility for the well-being of seafarers and their cargo. They are irreplaceable,” Cloutier said in an earlier release.

In its own statement released after midnight, the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation (SLSMC) said the parties are at an impasse as Unifor “continues to insist on wage increases inspired by automotive-type negotiations,” and the seaway will remain shut down until an agreement can be reached.

Striking workers hold signs and flags on a picket line.
St. Lawrence Seaway workers are pictured on the picket line early Sunday morning after deciding to go on strike. (Unifor)

“The stakes are high, and we are fully dedicated to finding a resolution that serves the interests of the corporation and its employees,” SLSMC president and CEO Terence Bowles said in a statement.

“In these economically and geopolitically critical times, it is important that the seaway remains a reliable transportation route for the efficient movement of essential cargoes.”

Slow progress in talks

The SLSMC said on Friday that it remained committed to negotiating in good faith, but also said progress had been slow and the union’s wage demands could lead to higher tolls.

On Wednesday, it cited the potential impact on freight shipments as a major concern.

“Cargo movements through the seaway are an important part of the North American economy and supply chain,” said spokesperson Jean Aubry-Morin.

“In particular, this labour action would impact grain movements during a period when the world is in dire need of this essential commodity, even as supply has been affected by the situation in Ukraine and the greater frequency of extreme weather events being experienced around the world.”

The corporation said it is waiting for a response to its application to the Canada Industrial Relations Board, seeking an order to confirm the application of the Canada Labour Code related to the movement of grain during a strike.

WATCH | Strike shuts down St. Lawrence Seaway: 

St. Lawrence Seaway workers go on strike

Featured VideoWorkers at the St. Lawrence Seaway went on strike over the weekend demanding higher wages and halting cargo traffic on the crucial supply route.

It said a shutdown of the system took place during the 72-hour notice period allowing vessels to safely clear the Seaway system, and the SLSMC is in regular contact with the marine industry. There are currently no vessels waiting to exit the system, but there are over 100 outside the system that are impacted by the situation, the statement read.

Some 360 workers ranging from engineers to administrators comprise the five union locals who were in negotiations with the management authority until Saturday night.

Talks began in June with the help of a federal mediator, and continued after Unifor issued a 72-hour strike notice to the employer on Wednesday.

Last year, some $16.7 billion worth of cargo — nearly half of it grain and iron ore — traversed the system of locks, canals and channels.

Wages need to catch up, workers say

Marjolaine Brunet, who works as a maritime radio traffic controller and structure operator, said she’s striking because she wants a better salary.

“I think of my salary 19 years ago and what my purchasing power could actually purchase and what I can purchase now it has gone downhill,” Brunet said.

Jason Rodgers, president for his local Unifor chapter, said workers don’t want to strike but have been left little choice with stagnant wages. 

“We feel that there’s a lot of catching up to do with the salaries. We’re less and less competitive with other industries, businesses around,” he said. Stagnant wages have led to employees leaving for positions elsewhere throughout the years, Rodgers added.

“We want to put a stop to that and negotiate something that’s going to be acceptable for employees and something that’s going to help with the job retention and help us with the future hires.”

Impact on economy, businesses

In a statement Sunday, the Montreal Port Authority said the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River maritime ecosystem serves 75 per cent of the country’s manufacturing capacity and nearly two-thirds of the Canadian population.

“Any interruption or breakdown of services in the supply chains undermines the resilience of the economy, both regionally and nationally,” said spokesperson Renée Larouche in a statement. 

The Montreal Port Authority is calling on all parties to find a rapid solution to “limit the negative impact, both on the companies that rely on these goods and on Canada’s reputation as a trading partner.”

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) expressed concern about the strike’s impact on small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), especially after they were severely affected by this summer’s lengthy strike at B.C. ports. 

“SMEs and the Canadian economy as a whole don’t need another strike blocking an important trade route and hampering trade,” said Jasmin Guénette, vice-president of national affairs with the CFIB. 

“SMEs are already facing inflation, labour shortages, high debts and falling demand. They can’t afford another strike that would have a negative impact on their operations.”

The CFIB is calling on the government to ensure that the St. Lawrence Seaway remains fully operational while negotiations continue. It’s also continuing its call for federally regulated workers essential to the supply chain to be recognized as essential workers to avoid similar strikes in the future.

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