A strike at one of Canada’s busiest docks is nearing its end after the Senate voted to adopt back-to-work legislation Friday that would force 1,150 workers back on the job at the Port of Montreal.
The House of Commons approved the bill early Thursday morning, with the Conservatives joining forces with the minority Liberal government. The Senate gave its approval Friday evening to the bill, which now awaits royal assent.
Michel Murray, of the Canadian Union of Public Employees’ chapter that represents the dockworkers, said the bill is an attack of the workers’ constitutional right to strike.
He told the Senate the bill aims to categorize the Montreal port workers as essential workers because of economic considerations. He said no court this century has recognized that criteria.
“In a democratic context, the Charter applies, and we believe that this law is unconstitutional,” he said.
Maritime Employers Association President Martin Tessier, who represents the employer, said the bill is not a victory but a failure of the negotiation process.
“All of us in front of you today would have liked a different outcome, but we are at an impasse,” he told the Senate.
The union has said the dispute was sparked when the employer began imposing extended workday hours without consulting workers.
It said the employer told workers on April 10 that it would not honour job security provisions in the collective agreement and extended shifts by up to 100 minutes.
The union said workers would have willingly returned to the job had the employer simply ended the scheduling practice.
Tessier said the employer will no longer impose extended shifts on workers and will respect wage security if the law passes.
“If the law passes we could say, yes, we’ll have these extended shifts, but that’s not our intention,” he said.
“If the law goes through tomorrow, the scheduling will go back to normal and we’ll be working with the union.”
Labour Minister Filomena Tassi said the strike has caused significant harm to the Canadian economy.
“We must act now to bring a resolution to this ongoing dispute and prevent further harm,” she told the Senate.
She said fresh products worth millions of dollars are spoiling on the ships, leading to higher costs and greater food insecurity, and farmers cannot obtain key fertilizers for spring planting, which would result in a weak harvest this fall.
“There are the drug manufacturers in Montreal who rely on ingredients that arrive through the port on temperature-controlled containers,” she said.
Tassi said the parties involved in the dispute have demonstrated their inability to reach an agreement in over two and a half years of bargaining.
“We have provided federal mediators to support over one hundred bargaining sessions,” she said.
“In February, I appointed two of the most senior mediators to assist in the process. They have worked tirelessly to help the parties reach a negotiated settlement.”
Workers at the port have been without a contract since December 2018 and started to refuse overtime and weekend work earlier this month.
The union previously held a 10-day strike in August.
Murray said his union will challenge the legislation in court if passed by the Senate.
“We do not think the courts will support it,” he said
Murray said workers’ right to strike is protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“We hope that Senators are the guardians of this charter and of its values,” he said.
In a 2015 decision on a Saskatchewan case, the Supreme Court of Canada affirmed that the right to strike has constitutional protection.
“The right to strike is an essential element of a meaningful collective bargaining process in our labour relations system,” the highest court ruled, noting it also promotes equality in the bargaining process.
Tassi said the back-to-work bill would end the ongoing work stoppage at the port and provide the parties with a neutral arbitration process to resolve the dispute.
“It would also establish a new collective agreement, thereby providing much-needed stability at the port.”