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A container ship is loaded in the Port of Montreal on Sept. 19. Unifor says the St. Lawrence Seaway is poised to shut down as hundreds of workers walk off the job.Christinne Muschi/The Canadian Press

Business groups urged the federal government to intervene to void a lengthy labour dispute at the St. Lawrence Seaway amid concerns that a strike that began early Sunday could have a profound affect on their members.

The St. Lawrence Seaway shut down after hundreds of workers walked off the job shortly after midnight over failed contract negotiations.

Unifor, the union representing the roughly 360 striking workers, said last week that it remained miles apart from management on the key issue of wages. Hours before the strike, the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp. indicated there had been little progress in the negotiations and has argued the union’s salary demands could lead to higher tolls.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business said strike-related delays could result in lost sales and revenue at a time when small businesses are already dealing with other challenges like inflation and labour shortages.

“It comes after the B.C. port strike, it comes after COVID-19 restrictions, it comes after a series of hits that businesses are having to deal with for the past couple of years and we’re hoping to see the federal government not to stay on the sidelines and not to wait for another 13 days of strikes like (what) happened at the B.C. port strikes,” said Jasmin Guénette, vice president of national affairs at the CFIB.

“We’re hoping to see the federal government step in, find a way to ensure that the St. Lawrence Seaway activity resume as quickly as possible.”

The key commodities halted by the St. Lawrence Seaway strike

The federation says small businesses were seriously affected by the July strike in B.C., in which thousands of provincial port workers walked off the job over 13 days. The job action froze billions in cargo at one of the country’s busiest ports.

The last thing the economy needs now is another busy trade route being blocked, the federation said.

Calls for federal intervention in the seaway strike also came from the Canadian Chamber of Commerce. It notes the seaway supports 66,000 jobs and is responsible for $34 million in economic activity daily, so any stoppage will hurt the economy.

“Particularly at this critical time, Canadians need stability in our supply chains,” the organization said in a statement. “We urge the Government of Canada to use all the tools in its tool box to solve this strike immediately.”

Both federal Transport Minister Pablo Rodriguez and Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan took to the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, to urge everyone back to the negotiating table.

Last year, some $16.7 billion worth of cargo – nearly half of it grain and iron ore – traversed the St. Lawrence Seaway, a system of locks, canals and channels that stretches more than 300 kilometres.

The strike is expected to affect cargo shipments immediately along the artery that runs between Montreal and Lake Erie. The corporation was waiting for a response to its application to the Canada Industrial Relations Board, seeking an order to confirm the application of the Canada Labour Code related to the movement of grain during a strike.

Talks began in June with the help of a federal mediator and continued after Unifor issued a 72-hour strike notice to the employer on Wednesday. A shutdown of the system took place during that period allowing vessels to clear the Seaway. There are currently no vessels waiting to exit the system, but there are over 100 outside that are impacted by the situation, the seaway authority said.

Unifor said it was unable to reach an agreement with the employer by the strike deadline despite negotiations. The employees range from engineers to administrators split between five locals.

Workers set up pickets Sunday in St-Lambert, just south of Montreal, and St. Catharine's, Ont.

On Sunday, both sides accused the other of withdrawing from the negotiating table.

The union has said it remains far apart on the issues of wages – the key sticking point in negotiations. The union said shortly after the strike was declared it remained open to talks.

The St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation said the union has budged little on its salary demands, but added the stakes are high and it is determined to find a solution that serves the interests of everyone.

“We remain committed to continuing discussions at the table and reaching a fair labour agreement,” corporation spokesman Jean Aubry-Morin said in an e-mail.

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