Canadian Federal Labour Minister Filomena Tassi has pushed through legislation that will force the Port of Montreal’s 1,150 striking dock workers to return to work.The legislation passed late on Friday April 30th.
The union said that work would resume, but that it would fight the government’s new law. Striking dockworkers began a gradual return to work on Saturday May 1st.
The legislation requirs the port’s employees to return to work and will extend their previous collective agreement until a new one is negotiated. Any strikes or lockouts are barred until a new agreement is signed. A mediator-arbitrator will be imposed on both parties if negotiations failed to reach a settlement.
It was not clear whether any such settlement would need to be “permanent” or whether, as was the case last August, whether such an agreement could just be temporary, while attempts were made to work out a permanent deal.
The unionized workers have been in contract negotiations since 2018.
The strike halted container operations at Port of Montreal, leading some container lines to divert vessels elsewhere, for example Halifax, Nova Scotia.
The Labour Minister appeared to have acted because the supply chains of thousands of businesses looked to be under threat. Tassi indicated last week she was willing to legislate the workers’ return to work if negotiations with their employer, the Maritime Employers Association (MEA), went poorly during the strike.
She also said last week that the strike was affecting supply chains that already had been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. “My colleagues and I have been in contact with the parties on numerous occasions to urge them to work with mediators to reach a deal,” she said.
An average of C$275m (US$224m) worth of goods moves through the Port of Montreal every day.
Tassi insisted that the legislation was not a case of the federal government taking sides. She also noted that the two parties could still choose to come to an agreement on their own terms. “All other efforts have been exhausted and a work stoppage is causing significant economic harm to Canadians; the government must act”, she said.
The union did not see it that way. It called the planned legislation “an affront to all workers in the country”.
“Prime Minister Trudeau has just sent a strong and clear message to all employers across the country: no need to negotiate in good faith with your workers, because if the going gets tough, we’ll be there to support you,” CUPE National President Mark Hancock said.
Although a mediation session took place last week shortly after the strike began, the union said that the government’s intention to legislate had killed the employer’s incentive to reach a deal.