St. Lawrence Seaway shut down by strike. What you need to know

Click to play video: 'St. Lawrence Seaway shut down as workers go on strike'
St. Lawrence Seaway shut down as workers go on strike
WATCH - St. Lawrence Seaway shut down as workers go on strike – Oct 22, 2023

The St. Lawrence Seaway, a busy trade route with work sites in Ontario and Quebec, shut down on Sunday, sparking fears among business groups of another economic disruption in Canada.

Some 360 union workers walked off the job on Oct. 22 after failed contract negotiations with management.

The disruption comes after a major strike by B.C. port workers earlier this summer that halted the movement of cargo worth billions.

Here is what you need to know.

What happened?

Shortly after midnight on Oct. 22, the 360 Unifor members went on strike.

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Unifor said in a statement it was unable to reach a deal with the employer, the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation, despite negotiations “right up to the last moment.” The union had filed a 72-hour strike notice on Oct. 18, and talks were ongoing since June.

The union had said that it remained “1,000 nautical miles apart” from management on wages, the key issue in discussions, and that it was up to the company to avoid any transit disruption.

“We negotiated in good faith right up to the last moment, but 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 Unifor Quebec director Daniel Cloutier in a statement Sunday.

Click to play video: 'What St. Lawrence Seaway strike could mean for Manitoba'
What St. Lawrence Seaway strike could mean for Manitoba

In its own statement released after midnight Oct. 22, the employer said the union “continues to insist on wage increases inspired by automotive-type negotiations,” and that the seaway will remain shut down until an agreement can be reached.

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“The stakes are high, and we are fully dedicated to finding a resolution that serves the interests of the Corporation and its employees,” said Terence Bowles, president and CEO of the St. Lawrence Seaway.

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“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.”

Why is the St. Lawrence Seaway important?

The St. Lawrence Seaway is a major trade route given that it connects the Great Lakes with the Atlantic Ocean.

According to St. Lawrence Seaway, roughly $16.7 billion worth of cargo passed through the St. Lawrence Seaway last year. The seaway itself is a system of locks, canals and channels that stretches more than 300 kilometres.

The disruption has spurred industry groups to call for a resolution soon.

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Click to play video: 'Exploring North America’s labour unrest during a ‘summer of strikes’'
Exploring North America’s labour unrest during a ‘summer of strikes’

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) called on the federal government Sunday to ensure the seaway remains open during the strike.

“Small businesses were seriously affected by the long strike at B.C. ports and the supply chain disruptions it caused this summer. The last thing the Canadian economy needs right now is another strike blocking a busy trade route and impacting businesses once again,” said Jasmin Guénette, vice-president of national affairs for the CFIB.

“Strike-related delays like this one can result in lost sales, lost revenue and even the loss of inventory for affected businesses. Small businesses are already dealing with inflation, labour shortages, heavy debt loads and weak demand. They cannot suffer from another strike that would impact their bottom line.”

Fertilizer Canada, an industry group that represents producers, manufacturers, wholesale and retail distributors of nitrogen, phosphate, potash and sulphur fertilizers, also expressed concern about the strike.

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“While we respect the collective bargaining process, shutting down the St. Lawrence Seaway will have damaging impacts on Canada’s economy. This is the second labour dispute in the last four months that has shut down Canadian ports that are crucial to Canada’s supply chains,” it said in a news release Monday.

“The federal government must support the expeditious resolution of this strike to protect Canada’s trade. Geopolitical events, like the war in Ukraine, have put pressure on the global fertilizer supply, and dependable supply chains are essential to Canada’s reputation as a reliable and stable trading partner.”

What’s happening now?

It’s unclear how long the strike will last, but Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan is urging both sides to get back to the bargaining table.

“Get back to the table. Work together to reach a deal and get the seaway moving again,” he said in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, on Sunday.

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A source in the minister’s office told Global News on Monday on background that the government is in touch with the Americans, who are “keenly watching this and are hopeful that a deal will come soon.”

They added they are focused on getting both sides to reach a deal.

“It’s pretty clear from the summer how our minister and the government is able to operate in these circumstances to get the parties towards deals that avoid the sorts of things that can really ruin collective bargaining environments, which is legislation,” they said.

“The minister considers that a last resort.”

— with files from The Canadian Press


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