Push on to prevent strike at Port of Montreal

A work stoppage that could start March 20 would disrupt containerized grain exports

Ottawa needs to act now to prevent a strike March 20 that would stop containerized grain from being exported from the Port of Montreal, says Jeff English, vice-president of marketing and communications at Pulse Canada.

“This is something we can see off in the distance, but we are going to be there before you know it,” English said in an interview Wednesday.

A 10-day strike last summer disrupting container exports from Montreal ended Aug. 20 when the Port of Montreal Longshoremen’s Union, represented by CUPE 375, and the Maritime Employers Association reached a tentative agreement on a seven-month truce.

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However, just recently, negotiations mediated by the federal government broke off and Pulse Canada and others are urging farmers and the public to ask federal Labour Minister Filomena Tassi to get the two sides to resume negotiations to prevent a work stoppage.

“Three weeks sounds like a long time but it’s really not when you’re talking about something folks haven’t been able to agree on in over two years,” English said. “So we are encouraging the federal government to take a stand and some leadership and get both sides back to the table now, rather than wait for this to expire and take action a month from now because by then it’s too late.

“There’s a chance now to step up and make sure this is functioning. It’s an agriculture issue but it obviously goes well beyond agriculture. We just can’t afford it in terms of meeting the needs of our customers. The economic and reputational damage is not easily repaired.”

Why it matters: Montreal is Canada’s second biggest port and a major exporter of containerized crops. A work stoppage would disrupt container exports hurting farmers, grain companies and Canada’s economy.

Last year Montreal exported containers of grain valued at more than $880 million, English said.

“We are not talking about a small amount of money,” he said.

“Whether you’re talking lentils or beans or soybeans or wheat the economic value there is real. We don’t have a horse in the race as to what an agreement looks like, but a disruption is absolutely something we want to avoid and something we think we can avoid if the federal government gets both sides back to the table.”

Last year’s strike, although brief, had a major impact forcing shippers to use other ports and adding to problems getting containers already in short supply due to COVID-19 and the demand for containers elsewhere, English said.

Canadian customers are already are asking exporters to start making other arrangements to get their orders filled, he said.

“We just can’t afford it in terms of meeting the needs of our customers. The economic and reputation damage is not easily repaired.”

The Canadian government has worked hard to expand Canadian farm exports and is encouraging even more, but a strike in Montreal works against those goals, English said.

“The biggest takeaway for me is we have time,” he said. “We can stop it provided it gets the necessary attention. I understand there are a lot of issues going on right now from a federal perspective. This is one that’s very avoidable. We can see it. It’s out there.”

Pulse Canada and seven other organizations are asking citizens to send a message to the federal government online or through Twitter at #StopTheStrike.

The Maritime Employers Association hasn’t given up on reaching a deal with the longshoremen.

“We’re still confident that we can reach a settlement before the end of the truce and our priority remains the negotiations.” association spokesperson Isabelle Pelletier wrote in an email Thursday.

“In order to comply with the truce concluded with the Port of Montreal Longshoremen’s Union, the Maritime Employers Association will not comment on the ongoing negotiations.”

The union didn’t respond to a request for comment by press time.

— Allan Dawson is a reporter for the Manitoba Co-operator at Miami, Man.

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