Shipping through the St. Lawrence Seaway shut down Sunday, as a strike by 361 unionized workers forced the massive inland waterway to close, in the latest labour dispute to interrupt Canada’s key transportation arteries.
The workers, represented by Unifor, walked off the job on Sunday morning just after midnight, after last-ditch talks failed to reach a deal. The union and the employer, St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp. (SLSMC), are at an impasse over wages, although neither side has disclosed the wage proposals on the table.
The strike has halted shipping traffic through a series of 15 locks from the Port of Montreal through the Welland Canal, which links Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. SLSMC said that cargo vessels within the Seaway itself were cleared during the 72-hour strike notice period leading up to the walkout, but it said that as of Sunday morning, there were “over 100 vessels” outside of the two ends of the system “which are impacted by the situation.”
The Seaway creates a 3,700-kilometre inland water transportation route that allows large cargo ships to travel between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean. More than 36 million tonnes of cargo passed through the Seaway last year, most of it key natural resources and raw materials, such as grains, metals and mining commodities. The Seaway is a critical piece of transportation infrastructure for the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence region, a group of two provinces and eight U.S. states that collectively account for nearly one-third of combined U.S. and Canadian economic activity and employment.
The unionized workers have been without a contract since the last one expired in April. This is the first time the Seaway has been closed by a strike since 1968, when it was shut down for 24 days.
“This impasse is extremely unfortunate but our members remain committed to getting a fair agreement,” Unifor national president Lana Payne said in a statement Sunday.
This is the second strike to affect a major part of Canada’s shipping system this year, following one that shut down the Port of Vancouver for nearly two weeks in July. The federal government came under considerable criticism from the business community for its handling of that dispute, and will again be under pressure to pave the way to get the Seaway reopened as quickly as possible.
In statements Sunday, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and the Canadian Federation of Independent Business urged the federal government to intervene.
“We are calling on the government to use all the tools it has in its tool box,” Canadian Chamber of Commerce vice-president Robin Guy said in an e-mail Sunday afternoon.
“We don’t want to see this drag on like we saw this summer with our West Coast ports. We want to see the government pushing for agreement to bring this strike to an end quickly, including through binding arbitration if necessary.”
Federal Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan issued a brief statement on X (formerly Twitter) late Sunday afternoon, saying that he and Transport Minister Pablo Rodriguez had phone conversations with both SLSMC and Unifor on Sunday.”Our message was clear: get back to the table. Work together to reach a deal and get the seaway moving again,” Mr. O’Regan’s tweet said.
A spokesman for Mr. O’Regan said that for now, the minister is observing the situation from a distance. He said that should the minister decide to get more involved, a first level of engagement would be to travel to the site of the talks, which have been taking place at a hotel in St. Catharines, Ont.
Meanwhile, SLSMC said it is awaiting a ruling on an application it filed to the Canada Industrial Relations Board on Friday, seeking an order to require the union to provide sufficient workers to maintain grain shipments through the Seaway.
“In these economically and geopolitically critical times, it is important that the Seaway remains a reliable transportation route for the efficient movement of essential cargoes between North America and the remainder of the world,” Terence Bowles, president and CEO of SLSMC, said in a statement.
Labour disputes have grown more common, and more heated, in Canada over the past couple of years, as workers in many sectors look to win back at the bargaining table what they have lost to high inflation. Federal government statistics show that in the first eight months of 2023, 2.1 million person-days have been lost to strikes – topping the 1.8 million person-days lost in all of 2022, and about double the annual work time lost to strikes prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The walkout on the Seaway comes on the heels of July’s strike at the Port of Vancouver, the country’s busiest cargo port. That work stoppage has been blamed for straining the country’s supply chains and weighing down a wide range of economic activity over the summer, as both imports and exports suffered. Statistics Canada cited the strike as a factor in tepid gross domestic product (GDP) numbers in July, as well as in sluggish manufacturing output and retail sales throughout the summer.
The federal government intervened in the port dispute, enlisting a federal mediator to draft a settlement and threatening to take more forceful action if necessary. But it stopped short of tabling back-to-work legislation, despite repeated calls from the business community to order the strikers back on the job.
Similar calls have already begun for the government to take quick and firm action to end the Seaway shutdown.
“CFIB is asking the government to ensure that the St. Lawrence Seaway remains fully operational while negotiations continue,” said Canadian Federation of Independent Business vice-president Jasmin Guénette in a statement.
He added that the small-business association is still lobbying the government “to make federally regulated workers who are indispensable to the supply chain essential workers, to avoid similar strikes in the future.”