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Unifor workers on strike

Photo courtesy Unifor

Strike Closes St. Lawrence Seaway

GCaptain
Total Views: 4090
October 22, 2023

Michael Folsom,

As the clock struck midnight on Sunday, St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation (SLSMC) workers represented by the Canada-based union, Unifor, walked off the job at 13 Canadian locks.

The more than 350 workers representing less than 1% of the marine commerce industry in North America now hold the key to when ship traffic will again be able to navigate between the Atlantic Ocean and the upper Great Lakes. 

A similar situation played out in the summer of 1968, just 9 years after the waterway opened, when more than 1,200 workers walked off the job also leading to layoffs of longshoremen and other marine-affiliated workers at various ports and shipping companies across the Great Lakes. Back then, former Executive Director Andrew W. Fleming of the Detroit-Wayne County Port Commission estimated that roughly $500,000 a day, a modern-day value of over $4 million, was being lost by Michigan business.

Both parties state they are “at an impasse” as Unifor continues to seek wage increases, while SLSMC works to find what it deems to be a fair and competitive labor agreement that balances wage demands and market realities.  As a result, the system will remain shutdown until an agreement can be reached, whether it be temporary or tentative, in an effort to minimize disruption for all stakeholders.

“The stakes are high, and we are fully dedicated to finding a resolution that serves the interests of the Corporation and its employees. We remain committed to continuing discussions and reaching a fair labor agreement,” stated Terence Bowles, SLSMC President and CEO. “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.”

Unifor National President Lana Payne expressed her disappointment in the failure of the employer to make serious movement in the past two days, saying: “This impasse is extremely unfortunate, but our members remain committed to getting a fair agreement.”

SLSMC asserts the union continues to seek wage increases patterned after the recent automotive industry negotiations.  

SLSMC believes the current situation at the Seaway is vastly different than the automotive industry.  In spite of the recent increases in inflation, Seaway workers over the past 20 years have negotiated salaries that the SLSMC identifies as being almost 10% ahead of inflation. 

“We, at the Seaway, are very concerned with the current situation and the effect it is having on our users, stakeholders, and the people awaiting these essential cargoes”, stated Bowles on Saturday.

Currently, SLSMC is awaiting a response to its Canada Industrial Relations Board application, seeking a ruling under the Canada Labor Code for the union to provide employees during a strike, to ensure vessels engaged in the movement of grain continue transiting the system. This ruling, however, is expected to be challenged as there would be potential loopholes that would gain passage for non-grain-related movements.

Negotiations began back in June after the contract expired on March 31, 2023. A second round of discussions took place in September before parties returned to the table earlier this week. 

“It’s really up to the employer at this point to seal this deal,” said Daniel Cloutier, Unifor Quebec Director. “These are jobs that require intense training, a high level of understanding of the health and safety risks, and that carry enormous responsibility for the wellbeing of seafarers and their cargo. They are irreplaceable.” 

As of Sunday morning, there were approximately 100 vessels affected by the shutdown and awaiting system access, according to SLSMC. Several ships are anchored off the west and east ends of the Welland Canal, as well as the upper portions of the St. Lawrence River. 

Aside from the 13 affected Canadian locks, the United States operates 2 locks on the Seaway, both in Massena, NY, which also have had to shutdown since no ship traffic is able to reach that point on the waterway. The Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation (GLS), part of the US Department of Transportation, posted to social media overnight “the St. Lawrence Seaway is closed due to a Canadian worker strike. Our team worked to ensure a safe close of Eisenhower and Snell Locks in Massena, N.Y. and notified cargo operators of impacts. Updates will be provided when more information is available.”

There have been no formal comments from representatives of either county’s transportation department. 

The bi-national St. Lawrence Seaway’s 15 locks (13 Canadian and 2 American) serve as the linchpin within the broader waterway, connecting the lower St. Lawrence River to the Great Lakes, enabling ships to transit between Montreal and Lake Erie, a difference in elevation of more than 550 feet (168 meters). Over 200 million tons of cargo travel on the waterway on an annual basis, generating upwards of $50 billion in economic activity.

Michael Folsom is creator of the Seaway Ship Watchers Network and Downbound Discussions Podcast. He is also a frequent contributor to gCaptain.com.

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