Back-to-work legislation tabled in Montreal longshore strike

by Lee Berthiaume THE CANADIAN PRESS

Federal Labour Minister Filomena Tassi described a strike at the Port of Montreal as a “matter of life and death” as the Liberal government on Tuesday tabled controversial back-to-work legislation aimed at getting 1,150 dockworkers back on the job.

Yet while opposition parties and the union representing the dockworkers all rushed to criticize the measure as a failure on the part of the government, the legislation appeared poised to pass with support from the Conservatives.

Operations at the Port of Montreal came to a halt after the dockworkers began a strike Monday morning, causing a complete shutdown at one of Canada’s busiest ports, through which millions of tonnes of goods flow each year.

“Least favourite” option

Tassi kicked off debate on the proposed legislation Tuesday afternoon by describing the measure as the government’s “least favourite option,” but a necessary step given the potential ramifications across Canada.

That includes widespread economic damage and the potential to endanger lives as medical and pharmaceutical supplies sit in shipping containers while the COVID-19 pandemic rages, Tassi said.

“(That) this is literally a matter of life and death has been the message that has been communicated to me if medical products and lifesaving medical devices don’t get to hospitals and patients in a timely manner,” the minister told the House of Commons.

“The health of Canadians are at stake. We know there are ships currently with Covid-related products, pharmaceutical and medical equipment that now cannot get through. The impacts are vast and deep.”

Criticism

Opposition parties and the union representing the dockworkers wasted no time criticizing the move, describing it as an affront to Canadian workers while accusing the government of having failed to help facilitate an agreement between the two sides.

Workers at the port have been without a contract since December 2018 and started to refuse overtime and weekend work earlier this month. The union previously held a 10-day strike in August.

Marc Ranger, Quebec director of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, which includes the longshoremen, described the legislation as “clumsy, ill-advised,” and said it “completely short-circuits the balance of power between the two parties.”

That assessment was echoed by the NDP and Bloc Quebecois, who questioned the need for the legislation, which will impose arbitration to determine the terms of a new collective agreement, with substantial fines in case of non-compliance.

“This is a dark day,” Bloc labour critic Louise Chabot said in French. “It’s a dark day because the government is tabling legislation in order to break negotiations. This is limiting workers’ abilities and tools. … There were opportunities to act otherwise.”

Conservative support

Yet despite echoing many of the same criticisms of the government, the Conservatives appeared poised to support the measure, arguing that the potential economic costs were too massive to let the matter lie.

“It’s unfortunate that the government was unable to facilitate a deal between the two parties and we do not celebrate the fact that this is before us,” said Conservative labour critic Mark Strahl.

“But here we are, we have to make a choice. And we choose to support the Canadian economy and support the workers right across the supply chain who are relying on the products that come through that port.”

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business and four other business associations largely based in Quebec welcomed the proposed legislation, describing it in a statement as critical for the supply chains and even the survival of their members.

“Although we believe that a negotiated agreement is the preferred avenue, after 30 months of uncertainty and fruitless discussions, the government had no choice but to use the levers at its disposal to protect our economy,” the statement reads.

“Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Minister Tassi have shown the leadership necessary to find a solution to this lingering situation. We had to show firmness to maintain operations at the Port of Montreal and limit the impacts of the past few weeks on our businesses.”