Workers at the port of Montreal began an open-ended strike Monday morning, effectively halting operations at one of the country’s busiest ports and threatening the supply chains of thousands of businesses.
It is the second labour dispute in less than a year at the port. A 19-day strike last August cost wholesalers an estimated $600 million in lost sales.
Under pressure from both the Ontario and Quebec governments, federal Labour Minister Filomena Tassi signalled on Sunday she was prepared to legislate an end to the work stoppage.
A mediation session got underway Monday, shortly after the strike began, but the union said the government’s intention to legislate has killed the employer’s incentive to reach a deal.
The 1,150 dockworkers have been without a contract since 2018. The union says the current dispute was triggered when their employer, the Maritime Employers Association (MEA), extended the workday without consulting them.
The MEA says it needs more flexibility from its workers to adapt to the changing demands on the port, which is the second-largest in the country and a key transit point for goods destined for businesses in Eastern Canada.
On Monday, Quebec Labour Minister Jean Boulet re-iterated his government’s support for federal intervention in the dispute. He also pointed out the Montreal port is an important entry point for medical supplies.
“We have to avoid the economic impact of such a labour conflict,” Boulet said. “And it is also a question of the health and safety of Quebecers, the people in Ontario and for all people living in the North Atlantic territory.”
But the process of passing back-to-work legislation is potentially politically fraught for the minority Liberal government.
Both the NDP and the Bloc Québécois indicated Monday they would oppose the bill. The Conservatives said they will decide whether to support it after the bill has been tabled and its contents made public.
All three sides accused the government of mishandling the conflict and letting it escalate to the point of strike.
Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet said the problem could be resolved by a phone call from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to both sides, forcing workers to return to work.
The earliest date the government can pass a bill is Tuesday.
In 2018, when the Liberals passed a law ending rotating strikes at Canada Post, it took about a week for the bill to reach Parliament.
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