Since Monday morning, workers at the Port of Montreal have been on strike after two years without a contract. At a time when global supply chains are already severely strained, a strike at Canada’s largest eastern port poses a great risk for Canadian businesses and international trade.
For over two years now, Montreal port workers have been working without a collective labour agreement with their employer, the Maritime Employers Association (MEA), and this strike comes in response to the MEA’s latest decision to extend the working day without consultation. Despite pressure tactics from the MEA, the federal government intends to put forward and pass back to work legislation, according to Minister of Labour, Filomena Tassi.
The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) is calling the government’s intervention “an affront to all workers in the country”, as well as indicating that the Minister would be better suited to intervene directly with MEA, indicating that back to work legislation is unnecessary.
While collective bargaining and good faith negotiation are both fundamental pillars of democracy, the current circumstances of a pandemic underscores the essential nature of all those workers involved in ensuring Canada’s international trade. Still reeling from the damaging impacts on global supply chains from early last year, Canada is in no position to allow further disruption to the sector. However, this doesn’t mean that the port workers haven’t been exploited over the last two years without a collective agreement, forced to work without any certainty or guarantees of future employment.
At such a volatile moment in time, it is incumbent on the government of Canada to ensure that there is clarity in employment agreements for all public employees. Even beyond that, the federal Ministry of Labour has an obligation to take proactive steps to avoid labour disputes – and this means that the federal government should have stepped in as a mediator between MEA and CUPE at the onset of the pandemic in order to avoid the current crisis.
From a political level, the Conservatives have said they will support the back to work legislation, while both the Bloc Quebecois and NDP will oppose it. Based on these presumptions, the legislation will pass, but all three opposition parties emphasize the inaction of the government to prevent escalation to this point. Both the Bloc and NDP leaders are criticizing the government’s prioritization of economic factors as opposed to the rights of workers at the port.
As Canada’s largest and most important eastern port, the Port of Montreal’s continuous operation is central to Canada’s economic recovery during this time, and the labour strike has the potential to threaten the national economy at large. While back to work legislation is by no means the best outcome of months long negotiations, Canada simply cannot afford to compromise its position in international trade at such a dire time.