Port of Montreal: dockworkers are determined to fight!

Pending the decision of the court about essential services to maintain in the event of a strike, members of the Union of dockworkers of the port of Montreal (local 375 of CUPE) have just voted overwhelmingly for a third time in favor of the triggering ” all means of pressure, including strikes ”when deemed appropriate by the union executive. Obviously, anger is brewing against the delaying tactics of the Maritime Employers Association (MEA), which represents the companies for which the longshoremen work.

Since port activities are under federal jurisdiction, the Canada Industrial Relations Board (CIRB) is called upon to rule on essential services to be maintained when a strike or lockout is called. The collective agreement which determines the working conditions of the 1,100 employees who load and unload ships docking at the port of Montreal expired over a year ago, on December 31, 2018. A few days earlier, the members of the union held their first strike vote in an extraordinary meeting in which more than 600 participated. Result: 99.49% gave the mandate to their executive.

The possibility of a strike therefore prompted the CIRB to hold hearings, at which the Maritime Employers Association demonstrated total bad faith so that workers could not exercise their rights. The first hearing took place on February 4, 2019 and as of this writing, a year later, the union is still awaiting the decision! Just to determine the list of essential services, there were throughout the year no less than 24 days of hearings, during which the employer party called 22 witnesses …

The culmination of these more than dubious tactics – but which greatly enrich those lawyers who execute them – the MEA filed a motion on July 17 to force the recusal of one of the members of the tribunal who had been appointed to represent the workers. The MEA alleged that this decision-maker had shown “partiality” during previous hearings, accusing him in particular of “not having taken notes during cross-examination” of a witness summoned by the union. After taking the matter under advisement, the members of the court were unanimous in dismissing the application and resumed their work.

One delaying tactic not waiting for another, the employers’ lawyers challenged this decision before the Federal Court of Appeal. By the time the case was decided, no decision could therefore be made on the merits, delaying the possibility of a strike, much to the delight of the companies. This is where we can see how the legal framework applicable to labor relations in Canada is restrictive for workers who want to fight to defend and improve their working conditions, and for the exercise of union rights. On January 29, the parties therefore ended up in Ottawa before the Federal Court of Appeal. After hearing the argument of counsel for the MEA, the court rendered a unanimous decision: the CIRB’s decision not to challenge one of its members was upheld and the appeal dismissed immediately, without even that union attorneys needed to plead. As the union executive wrote in a press release, this is a stinging defeat for the employer, “which clearly demonstrates what the union had always claimed on MEA remedies, namely that ‘They only aimed to save time in the face of the extraordinary solidarity of the members of the 375’.

This solidarity has been manifested throughout the past year, as we saw during the second strike vote, held by secret ballot on December 5, 2019. Of the 1,115 members of the union, there are 912 to having participated in the vote and once again, the result spoke for itself, while 99.45% of them voted in favor of the strike mandate, valid for two months.

Now that the Federal Court of Appeal has ruled out the ridiculous maneuver of the MEA’s lawyer and that the decision on the merits of the CIRB is imminent, the union held a new vote on February 4 and again, the members’ will to fight turn out in an unequivocal result: out of 847 voters, 842 (99.41%) voted for the strike! Given the evident bad faith of the MEA and its members, it can be expected that the strike mandate will be applied as soon as the CIRB makes its decision.

Clearly, the dockers want and are determined to make gains in the current round of bargaining. In the previous two rounds, their union was forced to accept setbacks when the companies were in demand and had the full backing of the state apparatus. The Harper government had indeed taken a clear stand on the side of its capitalist friends by announcing that it was going to pass a special law as soon as the union raised the possibility of a strike.

This time, the longshoremen and their union believe that the context is favorable for making gains. The volume of port activities is increasing, the Trudeau government claims to be in favor of free negotiation and union rights and above all, the longshoremen feel that their turn has come and that it is time to recoup the losses incurred during the two last negotiations. Their demands affect all aspects of their working conditions: wages and vacations, of course, but also the schedules and procedures for assigning labor, which require them to have an almost constant availability which weighs heavily on the reconciliation of personal life and work.

Last year, the Port of Montreal had its sixth consecutive record year in a row, as 40.5 million tonnes of cargo passed through, up to 4.1% from the previous year. This represents some 1.75 million containers, which the 1,100 longshoremen loaded and unloaded throughout the year.

The importance of the Port of Montreal for the movement of goods gives it a critical place in the functioning of Canadian capitalism. It is therefore not only the companies represented by the MEA who have an interest in the current round of negotiations and the emerging labor dispute: many other rapacious capitalists will gang up behind them and demand from their government that it ‘defends their interests’, which they present in a completely abusive and hypocritical way with “the public interest”, as the AEM tried to assert during the hearings on essential services.

“The public interest”, in reality, is the interest of the greatest number, not that of the minority of capitalists. The dockworkers are part of the large group of workmen and day laborers, who constitute an important part of the Quebec and Canadian proletariat, by their number and the place they occupy in the production process. The victories and advances they will obtain in the coming weeks and months will also be victories for all workers. We will have to stand in solidarity with them, support them on the picket lines, raise funds to strengthen their strike fund, and to help by any means necessary.

Let us unite as one class against the rapacious companies of maritime transport!