Talks resume but ships sit idle as St. Lawrence Seaway strike continues

‘The downtime is costly, and the financial implications are considerable’

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Life’s unusually quiet on Canada’s main trade gateway to the Atlantic Ocean, which carried goods to Europe and beyond.

Ships sat idle along the St. Lawrence Seaway on Oct. 27, as the impasse of labour negotiations between port workers and the government-owned St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation (SLSMC) stretched toward a full week.

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The Canadian Steamship Lines’ ships are fully crewed, but they’re not going anywhere, at least not until the strike ends. The crews are using the downtime to do maintenance work and catch up on training, according to CSL. But they’re ready to set sail the moment the St. Lawrence Seaway strike ends.

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“The downtime is costly, and the financial implications are considerable,” said Allister Paterson, chief commercial officer of the CSL Group. Of their 17 ships, 15 are impacted by the strike.

About $17 billion worth of goods flowed through the St. Lawrence Seaway last year, making it one of Canada’s most vital trade corridors.

Workers initially walked off the job Sunday morning after Unifor — the union representing those workers — failed to reach an agreement with the SLSMC. Though talks resumed on Oct. 27, it was not clear when the timeline for a deal would resume.

“No one benefits from this strike dragging on,” wrote SLSMC chief executive Terence Bowles in an Oct. 26 statement. “Every passing day comes at a steep price for businesses across the economy and threatens devastating losses for farmers.”

Workers initially walked off the job Sunday morning after Unifor failed to reach an agreement with the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation.
Workers initially walked off the job Sunday morning after Unifor failed to reach an agreement with the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation. Photo by Tara Walton/The Canadian Press

In spite of the current impasse, Unifor said it still hopes to reach a deal in short order.

“Our goal remains to achieve a fair and reasonable collective agreement for those who work along the St. Lawrence Seaway,” Unifor said in an Oct. 24 statement. “We strive to also make sure our members, their rights and collective agreement are respected by the corporation.”

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The St. Lawrence Seaway is part of the wider Great Lakes/Seaway system, a 3,700 km shipping route that extends from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean, which transports more than 200 million tonnes of cargo annually.

The strike comes on the heels of a major labour disruption on the West coast. In July, West Coast port workers walked off the job for 13 days, disrupting traffic at the Port of Vancouver and the Port of Prince Rupert, Canada’s largest and third-largest ports by volume, respectively. Montreal, by comparison, is Canada’s second-busiest port in terms of volume and tonnage.

Those disruptions have rippled across supply chains of everything from consumer goods to agricultural products, including key inputs like potash, of which Canada is the world’s largest exporter. Kayla FitzPatrick, a spokesperson for Ottawa-based Fertilizer Canada, said the St. Lawrence Seaway strike has disrupted what had become a key relief valve during the strikes on the west coast.

“The St. Lawrence Seaway has … been used to alleviate the backlog of potash shipments from the West Coast Ports strike,” she said.

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“Further delays can jeopardize our reputation as a reliable trading partner on the world stage.”

The strike comes at a bad time for fertilizer producers, because “the fall is a vital time for getting inventory in place for spring application,” FitzPatrick said. The producers the company represents have “at least six ships scheduled to come into the Seaway within the next week.”

The strike comes on the heels of a major labour disruption on the West coast.
The strike comes on the heels of a major labour disruption on the West coast. Photo by Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

The federal government ordered the two parties to resume talks on Oct. 27, given companies expect delays in the shipment of goods such as crops, iron ore, cement, stone, gypsum, and fertilizer.

The work stoppage also prompted a strong response from the governments of Ontario and Quebec. In a joint statement Oct. 26, Premiers Doug Ford and Francois Legault called for a rapid resolution of the strike.

“We need all sides to come to an agreement right away. If that doesn’t happen, the federal government needs to use whatever tools it has available to support a resolution that is fair for workers and brings this strike to an end as quickly as possible,” they said.

The call to action from the Premiers was not lost on Federal Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan, who responded to the statement on Oct. 26 and quickly departed for Quebec to attempt to resolve the issue. Speaking to reporters, O’Regan said a deal needed to be reached in short order.

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“The importance of the seaway is not lost on me,” he said. “We need a deal. We need them at the table. We need a deal, we need a deal, we need a deal.”

The closure has set off a chain reaction which has only worsened, said Crosby Devitt, chief executive of Guelph, Ontario-based Grain Farmers of Ontario. “This is creating a backlog of grain and will soon leave us with nowhere to store harvested corn,” he said. “We desperately need the government and all involved parties to find a way to keep Ontario’s grain moving.”

The 361 workers who walked off the job on Oct. 22 are seeking pay increases. The company, in turn, has argued wage increases for its workers have already largely outpaced inflation.

“This impasse is extremely unfortunate but our members remain committed to getting a fair agreement,” said Lana Payne, Unifor national president.

The employer said if it were to raise wages to the level the union has requested, it could raise the cost of tolls and the cost of the goods that pass through the Seaway, making the waterway less competitive as a whole.

A container ship is loaded in the Port of Montreal.
A container ship is loaded in the Port of Montreal. Photo by Christinne Muschi/The Canadian Press files

A spokerperson for Montreal-based Canadian National Railway Co. said earlier this week that the railway is “closely monitoring the situation.”

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“The company will continue to discuss with logistics chain players to examine how its network can meet transportation needs.”

The Montreal Port Authority is watching the situation as well. So far, operations are holding steady.

“There is no congestion in the Port of Montreal at present, nor is there any cargo on hold,” spokesperson Renée Larouche said. “The situation presents some logistical challenges, but no problems. We continue to communicate with all stakeholders to ensure smooth logistics between the various players.”

Larouche said the smooth operation of trade infrastructure like the Seaway is “crucial,” and that “any interruption or breakdown of services in the supply chains undermines the resilience of the economy, both regionally and nationally.”

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“Any shutdown, even a short one, will negatively impact the Seaway as we enter into the busy part of the navigation season,” echoed the employer.

“The WGEA cannot stress with enough force the extreme urgency of resolving this dispute immediately by whatever means necessary,” wrote Wade Sobkowich, executive director of The Western Grain Elevator Association, in an email. The impact on producers and entire countries cannot be overstated, he added.

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