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A UNIFOR union 'On Strike' sign is shown as St. Lawrence Seaway workers strike outside the St. Lambert Lock in St-Lambert, Que., on Oct. 23.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

The strike by Canadian workers that closed the St. Lawrence Seaway is costing U.S. jobs at Great Lakes ports and manufacturers as ships are stranded and cargo is diverted to the East Coast, U.S. industry officials say.

The 350 Unifor workers walked off the job on Sunday after talks broke down with the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp., which operates 13 of the 15 Seaway locks between Montreal and Lake Erie.

Negotiations on a collective agreement are scheduled to resume on Friday after a federal mediator on Tuesday afternoon called the sides back to the bargaining table.

But the shutdown of the Seaway has already exacted a price from the Canadian and U.S. vessel owners, dock workers, and the manufacturers and producers that rely on the waterway.

The strike has closed the locks in and around Montreal and on the Welland Canal, which links Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. Inbound shipments of steel and iron ore are halted, as are exports of metals and grain, and the delivery of road salt ahead of the seasonal shutdown of Seaway shipping in late December.

Steve Fisher, executive director of the American Great Lakes Ports Association, said the shutdown of the Welland Canal is affecting U.S. ports in the Upper Great Lakes.

The strike has prevented the arrival of Canadian ships that move U.S. grain and other goods through the canal to ports in Quebec, where they are transloaded onto ocean-going vessels destined for Europe and Africa, he said. Additionally, inbound ships are prevented from reaching U.S. ports in the western part of the Great Lakes – including in Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland – with cargoes of steel from Europe intended for U.S. makers of car parts, appliances and canned food.

Mr. Fisher said it is an “outrage” the two sides have not met for two days.

“The Canadian government owns the Seaway and we want the government to work with both sides to try to help them resolve this conflict,” Mr. Fisher said from Washington. “People are literally losing their jobs. Companies are losing millions of dollars a day as this Seaway strike continues.”

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Gregg Ruhl, chief executive officer of Algoma Central Corp., the largest Canadian vessel fleet on the Great Lakes, said the contract talks should resume sooner than Friday.” Where’s the sense of urgency? What’s wrong with Wednesday and Thursday? Or tonight?” Mr. Ruhl said on Tuesday. “Meanwhile the raw materials that fuel industry, the grain that feeds the world, the salt that will keep our roads safe this winter, the aggregates to support construction, and the gasoline to fuel our vehicles are all stalled.”

Federal Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan told reporters on Tuesday he has had “extensive” talks with U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and others, and is urging the employer and union to hammer out a deal to limit the impact of the strike.

“You’re talking about hundreds of communities that feed into the Great Lakes [and] trade that goes ultimately not just in other parts of Canada but also to the U.S., Europe and Africa,” Mr. O’Regan said in Ottawa.

The strike has marooned, among others, a grain ship in Duluth, Minn., destined for Europe, a U.S. Navy combat boat in Cleveland, and a French cruise ship in Toronto.

U.S. manufacturers are already talking to their shipping lines about diverting deliveries of steel to ports on the U.S. East Coast. This will mean less work for U.S. stevedores, truck drivers and others who rely on the ports for their livelihoods, while giving a lift to Atlantic Coast terminals, Mr. Fisher said.

“They get more jobs and we get less jobs,” he said.

The strike comes at a critical time for the companies that trade on the waterway that links the heartland of North America with overseas markets. Before the strike, steel plants were stockpiling ship-borne ore and other raw materials ahead of the winter shutdown, and grain companies were busy loading bulk vessels with the recent harvest of canola, wheat and other grains for food makers in Europe and Africa.

“As the navigation season has a finite shipping period and is a critical aspect of our business, we are watching the situation closely and trust a swift resolution will be reached,” said Marie Verdun, a spokeswoman for ArcelorMittal Dofasco, which runs a steel plant in Hamilton on Lake Ontario.

Industry members on both sides of the Seaway said the shutdown has severed a key trade route and damaged Canada’s reputation as a reliable trading partner.

Also at risk, said Aaron Bensinger, vice-president of operations at vessel agent Central Marine Logistics, is the cruise ship business on the Great Lakes, which is only just returning after the pandemic shutdown.

“It’s things like this that will scare those [cruise vessel] operators off eventually,” he said from Griffith, Ind., on the southern tip of Lake Michigan. “They need to know that they can get their ships in and out of the lakes without getting their ships stuck in jail, in a sense.”

Eric Peace is vice-president of the Lake Carriers’ Association, which represents the owners of the 46 U.S.-flagged ships that trade on the Upper Great Lakes. These vessels do not sail past Lake Erie because they are too big for the Welland Canal.

However, Mr. Peace said when the strike is over a flood of ships will cause logjams at the Soo Locks that connect Lake Huron and Lake Superior. This will slow traffic as vessels and shippers try to complete deliveries and stockpile ore and other raw materials ahead of the Jan. 15 winter shutdown of the U.S.-managed Soo Locks.

“We’re all competing for the same locks and we’re all competing for the same docks,” Mr. Peace said from Cleveland.

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