Union denounces federal back-to-work legislation to reopen Port of Montreal

·4 min read

OTTAWA — The spokesman for a union representing striking dockworkers at Montreal's port called on Thursday for an end to contentious scheduling practices before the workers are forced back on the job.

The appeal came after the House of Commons approved legislation early Thursday morning to put an end to the strike that has shut down one of Canada's busiest ports.

Conservatives joined forces with the minority Liberal government to pass Bill C-29 by a vote of 255-61. Three Liberals, as well as Bloc Québécois, NDP and Green MPs, voted against it.

The bill is aimed at quickly reopening the Port of Montreal, where the flow of millions of tonnes of goods came to halt after 1,150 dockworkers began a strike Monday morning. It must still be passed by the Senate, which is scheduled to deal with the bill Friday.

Union representative Michel Murray denounced the legislation at a news conference in Montreal Thursday and called on the government to clarify the working conditions under which the workers will have to return.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents the dockworkers, has said the current dispute was sparked by their employer, the Maritime Employers Association, imposing extended workday hours without consulting workers.

"It's clearly an act of provocation by the employer," Murray said. "How are going to go back to work with these schedules still in place?"

He claimed a special law would not have been needed had the employer simply ended the scheduling practice, because the workers would have willingly returned to the job. He said the union will challenge the legislation, which he described as "unconstitutional."

He said the workers have also filed a complaint with the International Labour Organization, invoking two treaties Canada has ratified that deal with the right to strike. One of those treaties specifies that dock work "is not an essential service in the strict meaning of the term," he said.

During late-night debate on the bill Wednesday, Labour Minister Filomena Tassi said if the strike is allowed to drag on it would cost the economy $40 million to $100 million per week, directly threatening 19,000 jobs and indirectly affecting hundreds of thousands of other jobs across the country.

And she said it's a matter of life and death because the strike has left essential medical supplies and pharmaceuticals sitting in shipping containers as the COVID-19 pandemic rages.

"I cannot impress upon you enough, this situation is dire," she told the Commons, where debate on the bill continued past midnight.

"The supply chains are critical and we have to keep goods moving. And this is really a situation where, for the health and safety of Canadians and the economy, we must take this action."

Tassi said the back-to-work legislation is a last resort after more than two years of efforts to find a negotiated solution failed.

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.

Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet said Wednesday that the strike could be called off immediately if the federal government ordered the employers association to cancel the work schedule changes.

"Take your damn phone, call them," he said.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said the bill undermines the right to collective bargaining and will do long-term damage to relations between dockworkers and their employer that will cause tensions down the road.

The government was also criticized by the Conservatives for not doing enough to avert the strike. But leader Erin O'Toole had affirmed Tuesday that his party would support the legislation because of the potential damage a prolonged strike could cause Canada's economy.

Manitoba Conservative MP Dan Mazier said he was "devastated" that government inaction led to the strike. Nevertheless, he said ending it is necessary to give assurance to farmers that they'll receive needed shipments of seeds and fertilizer as they start planting their crops.

"I am standing up for jobs, I'm standing up for our economy and I'm standing up for my country," he told the Commons.

The legislation would require dockworkers to return to work immediately after the bill receives royal assent.

It would extend their previous collective agreement until a new one is negotiated and prohibit any strikes or lockouts in the meantime. If negotiations fail again, the bill would impose a mediator-arbitrator on both parties

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 29, 2021.

Joan Bryden and Lina Dib, The Canadian Press