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A truck drives past stacked cargo containers in the Port of Montreal, March 10, 2021.Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

Canada’s top business leaders are calling on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government to put an end to the ongoing labour conflict at the Port of Montreal ahead of a looming strike by dockworkers, saying the situation has become untenable and demands high-level political intervention.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees-led Syndicat des Débardeurs, which represents some 1,125 workers at the port, was set to trigger what it called a partial walkout, that would take effect Tuesday evening at 6 p.m. Business leaders said pressure tactics would have the same effect as a full-blown strike, delaying shipments at Canada’s second-biggest port for the second time in less than a year at a time when the economy cannot afford any additional supply-chain chaos.

“A port can’t operate on a part-time basis. Boats come when they come and they need to be unloaded quickly. It’s part of an international logistics chain,” said Michel Leblanc, chief executive of the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal, adding that a decision to end the work stoppage has to be taken at the highest level of government. “It’s up to the Prime Minister to decide whether he’s going to let this situation degenerate.”

The union said longshoremen will stop working overtime and will no longer work weekends, when ships are typically unloaded and re-loaded. The work slowdown comes after the Maritime Employers Association, which represents ship owners and operators, told the workers that because of declining cargo volumes at the port in recent months related to the labour uncertainty, the group will no longer pay them for hours not worked. The workers had guaranteed revenue provisions in their expired labour contract.

Leaders from Quebec’s six largest business groups, including Montreal’s Chamber of Commerce, held a news conference Tuesday to demand federal action ensuring normal port operations would continue. In a separate statement echoing that view, several other Canadian industry groups, including the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters association, said cargo bottlenecks would increase if nothing was done, impacting Canada’s economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The business groups are calling on Federal Labour Minister Filomena Tassi to appoint an arbitrator and enforce a decision that will be binding on both parties while port operations resume. Failing that, they said, the government could adopt a special law ordering the longshoremen back to work.

Canada’s Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, which provides dispute resolution and relationship assistance to trade unions and employers, summoned the two sides to separate meetings Tuesday. The results of those discussions were not immediately clear.

The Trudeau government has not been inclined to strong-arm companies and unions into settlements in the past, preferring to let the parties sort out their differences in cases like CN Rail’s labour conflict in late 2019. Asked to comment on the government’s intentions Tuesday, a spokesman for Ms. Tassi said, “While the government strongly believes a negotiated agreement is the best option for all parties, we are actively examining all options as the situation evolves.”

Martin Imbleau, chief executive of the Montreal port authority, said the labour conflict jeopardizes the port’s ability to serve its purpose as a public entity. Cargo volumes declined 11 per cent at the port in March year-over-year and with the planned work stoppage the facility will be operating at no more than 70 per cent of its capacity, he said.

“There aren’t too many public services that can work on a partial basis. It just doesn’t make any sense,” Mr. Imbleau said in an interview Tuesday. “We think there is going to be significant impact in the ripple effect [of our operations]. It will deteriorate the reliability quite significantly and rapidly.”

A strike would come at a bad time for importers and exporters, who are already dealing with supply-chain disruptions caused by factory closings under government lockdown orders and a global shortage of shipping-container capacity as demand builds for consumer goods and other products. Many companies have already been diverting their Montreal-bound cargo to other ports, such as Halifax.

Relations between management and the union have been strained since the end last month of a seven-month truce allowing for negotiations to take place. The union overwhelmingly rejected the employer’s latest contract offer.

“We want better work-life balance for the workers. We want to reshape salaries. And the only thing we’re being told is that there’s no money,” union spokesman Michel Murray told reporters Monday. He said the union’s right to negotiate and to strike is on solid legal ground, adding he was confident the Liberal government will not resort to back-to-work legislation.

Montreal’s port handled just under 35 million tonnes of goods and commodities last year, many of them shipped to densely populated areas in Ontario and the U.S. Midwest. Its biggest-volume containerized cargoes include food, forest products and metallurgical products.

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