Business groups call on Ottawa to step in as strike begins at St. Lawrence Seaway

MONTREAL — Business groups have called on the federal government to step in to end a long-running labor dispute in St. Lawrence Seaway amid fears that a strike that began early Sunday could have a profound impact on their members.

The St. Lawrence Seaway was shut down after hundreds of workers walked off the job shortly after midnight over failed contract talks.

Unifor, the union representing about 360 striking workers, said last week it remained miles away from management on the key pay issue. Hours before the strike St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp. indicated that there had been little progress in negotiations and argued that the union’s wage demands could lead to higher fees.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business said strike-related delays could lead to lost sales and revenue at a time when small businesses are already dealing with other challenges such as inflation and labor shortages.

“This comes after the strike at the port of British Columbia, it comes after the COVID restrictions, it comes after a series of hits that businesses have had to deal with over the last few years, and we hope to see the federal government not stand by and wait 13 more days of strikes like (what) happened in the port strikes in British Columbia,” said Jasmine Gunet, vice president of national affairs at the CFIB.

“We hope to see the federal government step in, find a way to ensure that St. Lawrence Seaway will be reopened as quickly as possible.”

The federation says small businesses were hit hard by the July strike in British Columbia, which saw thousands of provincial port workers walk off the job for 13 days. The employment action froze cargo worth billions at one of the country’s busiest ports.

The last thing the economy needs now is another busy trade route to be blocked, the federation said.

Calls for federal intervention in the maritime strike also came from the Canadian Chamber of Commerce. He notes that the seaway supports 66,000 jobs and is responsible for $34 million in economic activity daily, so any shutdown would hurt the economy.

“Especially at this critical time, Canadians need stability in our supply chains,” the organization said in a statement. “We call on the Government of Canada to use every tool in its toolbox to resolve this strike immediately.”

Both federal Transport Minister Pablo Rodriguez and Labor Minister Seamus O’Regan took to social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, early Sunday to urge everyone to return to the negotiating table.

O’Regan posted on the platform for a second time Sunday afternoon, saying he and Rodriguez had conversations with St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp. and Unifor with a clear message that they must “get back to the table” to reach a deal and “get the seaway moving again.”

Last year, about $16.7 billion worth of cargo — nearly half of it grain and iron ore — passed through the St. Lawrence Seaway, a system of locks, canals and canals that stretches more than 300 kilometers.

The strike is expected to affect freight shipments immediately along the artery that runs between Montreal and Lake Erie. The corporation was awaiting a response to its application to the Canada Industrial Relations Board seeking an order confirming the application of the Canada Labor Code related to the movement of grain during a strike.

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. During this period, the system was suspended, allowing ships to clear the seaway. There are currently no vessels waiting to exit the system, but there are more than 100 outside that are affected by the situation, the maritime authority said.

Unifor said it was unable to reach an agreement with the employer by the strike deadline despite negotiations. Staff range from engineers to administrators, split between five locals.

Workers erected stakes Sunday in St. Lambert, south of Montreal, and St. Catharines, Ontario.

On Sunday, both sides accused the other of walking away from the negotiating table.

The union said it remains far apart on wage issues, the key sticking point in negotiations. The union said shortly after the strike was announced that it remained open to negotiations.

The Corporation for the Management of St. Lawrence Seaway said the union had relented a bit on its wage demands, but added that the stakes were high and he was determined to find a solution that served everyone’s interests.

“We remain committed to continuing discussions at the table and reaching a fair labor agreement,” corporation spokeswoman Jean Aubrey-Morin said in an email.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on October 22, 2023.

— With files from Christopher Reynolds and Mathieu Paquette in Montreal.

Siddhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press

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