Canadian News

'All means necessary': Big employer groups fight longshoremen’s strike for better working conditions

The involved employer associations have long been in touch with the federal government. Their demands have included corporate tax cuts, spending cuts, deregulation, and recently, calls to reopen schools.

Samuel Helguero The Post Millennial
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A strike coordinated by over a thousand Montreal workers is finding itself opposed not just by its own employer but by a slew of industry associations representing bosses across the country.

The striking union, a local of CUPE, is made up of roughly 1150 longshoremen. They are dock workers at Canada’s busiest eastern port.

Their concerns relate to a war of attrition against their schedules.

Hours at the port of Montreal are unpredictable. Every full time worker, no matter their seniority, must be available year-round, 19 days every 21 (the two days: “our weekend”). Each of these 19 days, they must call in to find out if, when, and where, they’re working the next.

To employees chagrin, as traffic has increased with port expansions, at stagnant pay, availability for 19 days has increasingly meant work for 19 consecutive days.

The port which stretches 26 kilometres along the island’s coast, offers additional uncertainty as to where longshoremen are working one day to another. Shifts are also up in the air. While at the picket line, one worker explained to The Post Millennial that in a week’s time one can unexpectedly be asked to do the overnight shift (11pm to 7am) one day, and an evening or morning shift another.

The job itself demands physical labour. Yet, it is not the exhaustion of a schedule in flux, but the concern of its impact over family and personal life that appears to be the major concern. It seemed that at least one longshoreman, when visiting the picket lines Friday, used the opportunity of a strike to spend more time with their young daughter, a common practice there.

Efforts for a better schedule only form part of demands coming from the waterfront union as they struggle to negotiate with the Maritime Employers Association over a new collective agreement (the contract between employees and their bosses). It is the impasse in these talks that initially provoked a strike vote by the longshoremen in December of 2018.  

The consequences of this vote have been delayed until July of this year, owed to a lengthy but failed legal battle launched by the longshoremen’s employers to prevent a strike.

1,151 longshoremen strike

So far, the union has launched four strikes, the most contentious and recent of which began August 10th. Of the more than a thousand workers that voted, 99.22 percent favoured an indefinite general strike. Workers reportedly had never felt more unified.

The decision to send all 1,151 workers on strike followed the union observing the need to maintain the balance of bargaining power.

Union officials noted August 3 that a “technical lockout” had begun as ships were being diverted to other harbours, limiting the possibility of work for some. In late July, as negotiations failed to yield consensus, employers reportedly cut overtime pay and changed remuneration agreements.

Strike breakers were also spotted, leading to aggressive confrontation.

A group of five major employer associations came out with a statement August 5th, during a smaller four day strike, demanding the federal government intervene and “put an end to the conflict.” They noted that the legal strike had taken the economy “hostage” by preventing the docks usage.

With the “shortest delay” the Minister of Labour was asked to use “all means necessary” to resolve the conflict.

The statement, accompanied by a follow up press conference and media release August 10th, included warnings of disruptions of the medical and protective equipment being sent through the ports, seemingly ignoring union measures to ensure a partial strike, with essential products continuing to be allowed through the dock.

Sunday, Pierre Gratton, CEO of Canada's mining association, one of the most powerful interest groups in the country, expressed in Mining Journal that supply chain disruptions would further hamper "competitiveness." The lack of government intervention in the port strike was part of an "incomprehensible" trend.

Removing “barriers”

These prominent groupings of Canadian bosses have only hinted as to whether they are demanding back-to-work legislation. However, such a special law, like that passed in 2018 for postal workers, making continued strikes illegal, appears, according to expert observers, to be the federal Labour Minister’s only relevant power.

Speaking with The Post Millennial, Karl Blackburn, President and CEO of the Quebec Council of Employers (CPQ, in French), one of the employer associations that’s involved themselves, cautioned, somewhat euphemistically, “it’s not a special law, but we’re saying negotiate in good faith and, at the same time, we’re removing barriers to relaunch the port.”

Ryan Greer, a Senior Director at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce (CCC), expressed similar ambiguities in demands. The CCC, an organization with a broad corporate membership, published a short statement August 7, calling on the government to “prevent strike action” at Montreal’s port.    

According to Greer, the CCC has “spoken out in the past” when its membership at the port of Vancouver or businesses using rail lines have had “challenges with labour action.”

“In this case... we’ve just said the government should be looking at all tools in the tool box,” said Greer. “There’s various forms of mediation the government can impose. Obviously back-to-work legislation is the most extreme step governments can take.”

The involved business associations have long been in touch with the federal government, with lobbyists for organizations like the CPQ or CCC regularly contacting officials. Their demands have included corporate tax cuts, spending cuts, deregulation, and recently, calls to reopen schools.

During their present efforts, the CCC has written to the Minister of Labour, and continues to meet with employer associations to see where and how pressure can be applied. Blackburn, head of CPQ, personally received a call from the minister on the conflict.

Siding with the employer

While demanding intervention by government, business associations were asked whether they were applying equal pressure on the employer to reach an agreement with the longshoremen.

“I don’t understand,” was the severe response of Francois Vincent, provincial VP of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB), an organization that lists its principal political initiative to be removing “red tape” for Canadians.

While clarification was being provided, Vincent interrupted, signalling he originally understood, “I don’t want a quote saying I’m pushing to sign anything… I have confidence in what [the employers are] doing. I support them.”

This general sentiment was expressed by the spokespeople for the CCC and CPQ.

Despite their strong stance on government intervention, they admitted that they were unfamiliar with the details of the labour dispute or the concerns of the union. Blackburn noted, “what seems to be on the table are demands that are, unfortunately, economically impossible,” adding just afterwards “I do not know the details of the demands.”

These employer associations frame their requests more broadly, as necessary considering  the preexisting economic instability during a global pandemic.

However, the CPQ and provincial chambers of commerce’s opposition to strike action appears to have predated COVID-19. In early 2019, they were among the parties who aided port employers in their costly legal battle against the dock union.

Striking, voted on in December 2018, was delayed in attempts by management to have the totality of work at the dock declared an “essential service” (which would force workers to continue operating the entire port during a ‘strike’). This route brought the labour conflict to the Canada Industrial Relations Board, allegedly resulting in the longest hearings at the tribunal in Canadian history.

A union spokesperson called the legal hurtle a “farce” as their employers, with their “pleiad of lawyers” brought in no less than 29 witnesses to establish that a strike would be of immediate danger to public safety (the official definition of “essential service.”) This number included, curiously, a representative from the sugar industry.

Among other tactics the union’s lawyer highlighted, in condemnation, were the employers accusation that a member of the tribunal was guilty of partiality. The bosses filed a failed motion to have the member disqualified from the panel.

Ultimately, the industrial relations board ruled unanimously against the employers finding that the union only had to maintain limited services during a strike, a practice they follow to the present.

The authors of the joint August 5th statement point to Public Safety Canada’s consideration of dock work as offering an “essential service” during the COVID-19 epidemic. However, these qualifications were clearly not designed to limit strike action and preceded the express June 8th 2020 ruling by the tribunal.

Experts call for “true negotiations”

In response to the demands of business associations which have been well publicized in every major French and English outlet, experts in labour relations have attacked the possibility of back-to-work legislation.

Professor Yvan Perrier, defended striking as a “means of pressure, at once legitimate and legal” necessary for workers to “defend their dignity” and “improve their pay and working conditions.”

Perrier attacked the rhetoric of large business associations, commenting “strikes rarely occur without being accompanied by collateral damages or inconveniences” but are a necessary power for “true negotiations.”

Barry Weisleder, former union organizer, teacher, and secretary of Socialist Action, explained to The Post Millennial that increasing demands by business associations for back-to-work legislation has encouraged employers to refrain from good faith negotiation as they “hunker down and wait for the cavalry.”

Weisleder noted that while union’s have never been “strike happy,” workers have stood to gain from striking. As he suggests, since 1903, wage increases have followed strike intensity.  

Forcing an end to the strike and the intervention of an arbitrator, would decrease the bargaining power of the port workers, said Weisleder, and possibly force concessions upon them that they might have otherwise won through struggle.

“When we take direct action and we don’t rely on courts and the legislators in parliament, we are demonstrating the beginning of a different world where workers can be the agent of social change,” Weisleder added.

“Not only that, but strikes breathe new life into the union. Workers who are cynical that union officials aren’t taking their concerns to heart, see that there’s action and that they’re the agent of that action.”

Labour Minister, Filomena Tassi, has so far expressed that she will refrain from intervening. She has, however, noted she would be watching “closely” with the “expectation” that the strike would end “quickly.”

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