MONTREAL — The St. Lawrence Seaway has shut down as hundreds of workers walked off the job Sunday.
The halt is expected to affect cargo shipments immediately along the artery that runs between Montreal and Lake Erie.
In a release shortly after midnight on Sunday, the union said they were unable to reach an agreement with the employer by the strike deadline, despite negotiations "right up to the last moment."
"We cannot allow workers' rights to be compromised. We remain open to discussion and hope that the employer will reconsider its position for the good of all," said Daniel Cloutier, Unifor's Quebec director, in a release.
The union said this week that it remained “1,000 nautical miles apart” from management on wages — the key wedge in discussions — and that it was up to the employer to avoid any transit disruption.
“These are jobs that require intense training, a high level of understanding of the health and safety risks, and that carry enormous responsibility for the wellbeing of seafarers and their cargo. They are irreplaceable," Cloutier said in an earlier release.
In its own statement released after midnight, the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation said the parties are at an impasse as Unifor "continues to insist on wage increases inspired by automotive-type negotiations," and the Seaway will remain shut down until an agreement can be reached.
"The stakes are high, and we are fully dedicated to finding a resolution that serves the interested of the Corporation and its employees," stated SLSMC president and CEO Terence Bowles.
"In these economically and geopolitically critical times, it is important that the Seaway remains a reliable transportation route for the efficient movement of essential cargoes."
The SLSMC had said Friday it remained committed to negotiating in good faith, but said progress had been slow and that the union's wage demands could lead to higher tolls.
On Wednesday it cited the potential impact on freight shipments as a major concern.
“Cargo movements through the seaway are an important part of the North American economy and supply chain,” said spokesman Jean Aubry-Morin.
“In particular, this labour action would impact grain movements during a period when the world is in dire need of this essential commodity, even as supply has been affected by the situation in Ukraine and the greater frequency of extreme weather events being experienced around the world.”
The corporation said it is waiting for a response to its application to the Canada Industrial Relations Board, seeking an order to confirm the application of the Canada Labour Code related to the movement of grain during a strike.
It said a shutdown of the system took place during the 72-hour notice period allowing vessels to safely clear the Seaway system, and the SLSMC is in regular contact with the marine industry. There are currently no vessels waiting to exit the system, but there are over 100 outside the system that are impacted by the situation, the statement read.
Some 360 workers ranging from engineers to administrators comprise the five union locals who were in negotiations with the management authority until Saturday night.
Talks began in June with the help of a federal mediator, and continued after Unifor issued a 72-hour strike notice to the employer on Wednesday.
Last year, some $16.7 billion worth of cargo — nearly half of it grain and iron ore — traversed the St. Lawrence Seaway, a system of locks, canals and channels that stretches more than 300 kilometres.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 22, 2023.
Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press