The federal government is preparing to rush through legislation in the event that dock workers at the Port of Montreal go ahead with a planned strike on Monday morning.
A notice paper published on Sunday indicates that Labour Minister Filomena Tassi could, as early as Wednesday, table a bill aimed at ending the labour dispute.
The contents of the bill have not been made public, and it is not clear if it will resemble conventional back-to-work legislation.
The notice paper gives the government the option of tabling legislation quickly and bypassing several of the usual legislative steps.
“Putting forward this notice is our government’s least-favoured option. We believe in the collective bargaining process,” Tassi said in a string of tweets on Sunday.
“However, the government must act when all other efforts have been exhausted and a work stoppage is causing significant economic harm to Canadians.”
The strike is slated to begin at 7 a.m. on Monday, according to a notice provided last week by the union. A mediation session is scheduled to begin two hours later.
The prospect of another strike at the port — only seven months after the previous one — has alarmed businesses and politicians alike.
A work stoppage that lasted 19 days in August snarled supply chains across Eastern Canada. Some shipments were rerouted to other ports, while others had to wait weeks for the backlog to be cleared in Montreal.
Statistics Canada estimated the August strike cost wholesalers about $600 million in lost sales. Household goods and building supplies were particularly affected.
Quebec welcomes Ottawa’s intervention
The federal government did not get involved in last year’s dispute, but Quebec has been pressuring Ottawa to take a more active role this time.
Quebec Economy Minister Pierre Fitzgibbon welcomed the federal government’s intention to legislate an end to the conflict.
“It’s a critical situation for our businesses. Two strikes in one year is not an acceptable scenario,” Fitzgibbon said in a tweet on Sunday.
But MP Alexandre Boulerice, deputy leader of the NDP, said that by signalling their intent to legislate, the federal Liberals are undermining the union’s chances of negotiating a fair deal.
“I find it pitiful for the federal government to interfere when the strike hasn’t even begun yet,” Boulerice said. “By signalling their intention to table back-to-work legislation, they are siding with management.”
Schedules remain point of contention
The 1,150 port workers affiliated with the Canadian Union of Public Employees have been without a contract since 2018.
The union says the current conflict erupted when their employer, the Maritime Employers Association (MEA), extended the workday without consultation.
If the employer backtracks on that change, the union has promised to call off the strike. For the past several weeks, union members have protested the changes by refusing to work weekends or overtime.
Work schedules have been a major point of contention during the contract negotiations. While the employers association wants more flexibility from the workers, the union is seeking to improve work-life balance.
“The Maritime Employers Association is today preparing for the mediation session,” the association said in a statement. “The MEA is hoping for a negotiated settlement.”
A spokesperson for the union has not yet responded to a request for comment.
The Port of Montreal is the second-largest port in Canada and is responsible for an estimated 19,000 direct and indirect jobs.