Federal Labour Minister Filomena Tassi has tabled back-to-work legislation for the Port of Montreal’s 1,150 dock workers, who have been on strike since Monday morning.
The legislation, set to be debated Tuesday afternoon, would require employees to return to work after the bill passes. It would also extend their previous collective agreement until a new one is negotiated.
The legislation would also prevent any strikes or lockouts until a new agreement is signed and impose a mediator-arbitrator on both parties if negotiations fail again. Workers at the port also walked off the job seven months ago.
The strike has effectively halted operations at one of the country’s busiest ports and threatened the supply chains of thousands of businesses.
Tassi indicated last week she was willing to legislate the workers’ return to work if negotiations with their employer, the Maritime Employers Association (MEA), went poorly during the strike.
The minister released a statement on Tuesday saying the strike is affecting supply chains already impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“My colleagues and I have been in contact with the parties on numerous occasions to urge them to work with mediators to reach a deal,” she said in the statement.
“All other efforts have been exhausted and a work stoppage is causing significant economic harm to Canadians — the government must act.”
Tassi added that the federal government isn’t taking sides and that the parties could still choose to come to an agreement on their own terms under the legislation.
Union calls move an ‘affront’ to workers across Canada
A mediation session took place on Monday, shortly after the strike began, but the union said the government’s intention to legislate has killed the employer’s incentive to reach a deal.
The union reacted to the tabling of legislation almost immediately, calling it “an affront to all workers in the country.”
In a news release, the Quebec director of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), Marc Ranger, said the Liberal government was simply following the MEA’s wishes.
“Fundamental rights are being violated. It is shameful for a government that calls itself a defender of the middle class,” Ranger said.
On Tuesday, CUPE national president Mark Hancock sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, calling on him to intervene directly with the employer.
In the letter, Hancock said the strike action at the port was sparked in response to pressure tactics from the MEA.
“The Maritime Employers Association (MEA) sent a notice of lockout on April 10, 2021, announcing that it would not honour job security provisions in the collective agreement,” reads the letter.
“On April 22nd, the employer announced changes to working conditions related to scheduling, effective April 26, 2021, which caused the union to issue a notice for a general strike commencing on that date.”
Hancock wrote that back-to-work legislation “would undermine the fundamental rights of our members and contravene Canada’s international commitments” calling it “neither helpful nor necessary in the circumstances.”
Opposition parties say Liberals have mishandled conflict
It could take some time for the legislation to pass.
Both the NDP and the Bloc Québécois have said they will oppose the bill.
All three parties have accused the government of mishandling the conflict and letting it escalate to the point of a strike.
During debate in the House of Commons, Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet said “the special law is not a solution, rather it’s a proof of incompetence.”
He accused Trudeau of not doing enough to prevent the conflict from escalating.
“In five minutes on the phone, the prime minister could have avoided the strike.”
Responding to Blanchet in French, Trudeau said that supporting the legislation was an opportunity for Blanchet to defend the economic interests of Quebec.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh also joined in the discussion to criticize Trudeau’s response, saying he isn’t listening to the concerns of striking workers.
“The workers at the Port of Montreal want to have a collective agreement, it’s their right. But instead of helping them, the prime minister is going to force them back to work.”
Conservatives will support the bill
Shortly before 4 p.m., Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole issued a statement, saying his party would support the back-to-work legislation.
“Canada’s Conservatives believe that a general strike at an essential port should be avoided during a pandemic for the good of Canadians, port workers of all sectors, and businesses,” O’Toole said in the statement.
However, he joined his fellow opposition politicians in saying that Trudeau should have resolved the issues earlier.
“We will be supporting legislation to keep this essential port open, but it shouldn’t have to come to this. We are in this situation today because of Justin Trudeau’s failure,” he said.
The City of Montreal also joined in support of the back-to-work plan, issuing a statement to encourage the government to move the legislation through quickly.
“The City of Montreal wants to preserve the supply chain which the port plays a central role in, particularly during the pandemic, while we are preparing the revival of our economy and medical equipment is passing through the port,” reads the statement.
“We support a rapid return to work accompanied by the continuation of negotiations.”
In 2018, when the Liberals passed legislation ending rotating strikes at Canada Post, it took roughly a week for the bill to make its way through Parliament.
The dock workers have been without a contract since 2018. The union says the current dispute was triggered when the MEA extended the workday without consulting them.
For its part, the MEA says it needs more flexibility from its workers to adapt to the changing demands at the port, which is the second largest in the country and a key transit point for goods destined for businesses in Eastern Canada.