Montreal labour dispute alarm sounded

The special crops industry is raising the alarm about a looming labour dispute at the Port of Montreal.

Farmers can’t afford for the port to shut again, as it did last August.

“There’s still time,” said Jeff English, vice-president for communications of Pulse Canada.

“We don’t want to be talking about this a month from now because that will mean we’re in a much more difficult position.”

On March 21 a seven-month union-management truce expires on a festering dispute between the longshore workers’ union and the Maritime Employers Association. The union has held strike votes to get ready for the post-truce period.

Montreal is an important port for special crops and containerized grain. It is a key port for markets in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and is a vital outlet when Thunder Bay, Ont., is closed for the season, as it is now.

If containers can’t flow through Montreal, they have to be re-routed through secondary ports like Halifax, held back, or left stranded somewhere in the transportation system.

A federal mediator had been trying to bring the two sides together, but stepped back from those efforts recently when compromise seemed impossible.

“That set off huge alarm bells for us,” said Greg Northey, Pulse Canada’s vice-president for corporate affairs.

The problem with a labour dispute doesn’t just come from the actual days of shutdown. The uncertainty about whether shipments will be able to get through the port can last many times longer than a dispute actually shutting down facilities.

Shippers and buyers don’t know if they can rely upon the port and that makes business difficult.

“Any time you have a labour disruption like this and you can’t service your customers, it just damages the whole sector,” said Northey.

Pulse Canada is calling on the government to redouble its efforts to get the two sides talking again and looking for a settlement to the situation, which has existed since the longshore workers contract expired in 2018.

The strike that began on Aug. 10 lasted 12 days before the sides agreed to the truce.

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