Bill C-29, The Port of Montreal Strike: Why did the government wait for the crisis they knew could come in order to intervene?
April 30, 2021 (Ottawa, ON) - The Honourable Don Plett, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, issued the following statement:
Honourable senators, I want to add my voice to this debate, and I will be brief.
I would say that my overarching emotion in dealing with this legislation today is one of discouragement. I am discouraged because, in the middle of this global pandemic which has caused such hardship for so many Canadians, we are compelled to address a problem which could — and should — have been avoided.
The situation that we face at the Port of Montreal is unquestionably damaging not only to the Port of Montreal and the people who work there, but also to every person and business that depends on that port as well as to the economy of Quebec and, indeed, all of Canada.
But it is a situation that I believe could have been avoided. In that sense, I am discouraged that we have a government that does not seem to know what the words “proactively resolving a problem” mean.
I say that because here we have a dispute that has been ongoing at the Port of Montreal for several years; where collective bargaining has been under way since September 2018; and where, during the first months of the pandemic, we witnessed work stoppages just last year. Yet the government has completely failed to get a handle on the problem and prevent what we are facing today, namely, a strike that is extremely damaging to all concerned.
Every step of the way, the government has been reacting to events as they have occurred. Sure, they appointed conciliators and mediators over a period of two and a half years. These mediators and conciliation officers worked with the union and the employer, facilitating over 100 mediated bargaining sessions.
However, prior to the recent work stoppage, the union still held five separate strikes, including an 11-day unlimited general strike that took place in August 2020. All of these labour actions and mediation had little effect on bargaining and in coming to a resolution. Yet somehow the government was oblivious to the intractability of the problem and the necessity of dealing with it in the midst of a global pandemic, where it was vital to keep commerce and vital supplies flowing to the greatest extent possible.
I asked the minister this afternoon, colleagues, whether she had spoken to the Prime Minister about this — the Prime Minister, a member of Parliament for a riding in the city of Montreal, the city most affected by this — and what he had done about it. She had no answer. The Prime Minister has been sitting on his hands instead of proactively and aggressively taking action to bring this problem to a resolution. As a result, no decisive action was taken to head off the major work disruptions we are facing right now.
What are some of the implications of this inaction? They have already been mentioned, but let me repeat some of them.
Most immediately, the unlimited general strike that started on April 26 is halting the flow of $270 million in cargo every week. The strike is directly endangering the livelihoods of approximately 19,000 Canadians whose jobs depend on the port. The strike is causing damage to the Canadian economy in the order of approximately $40 million to $100 million per week. That damage will grow the longer the strike continues, yet we hear senators who say they will not support this legislation and will let these types of wasteful and economic problems continue.
In essence, we are now faced with the problem that the economic disruption being created by the strike is so extensive that even once this general strike ends, recovery is expected to take a significant period of time.
We know that last year’s work stoppages cost Canadians $600 million. Nearly 10% of the business sent to the Port of Montreal was lost. According to officials who briefed senators earlier this week, those losses may well be permanent, since many companies have shifted their traffic flows from Montreal to American East Coast ports. That means the permanent losses from last year are now likely to be compounded.
The Financial Post recently commented that the strike is further undermining Canada’s credibility as a competitive manufacturing jurisdiction with a reliable trade infrastructure. Last year, disruptions from the work stoppages created a backlog of goods that took three months to clear.
I do not have to explain to senators the impact that such a backlog has on certain sectors, such as the agricultural industry. The Port of Montreal handles nearly $900 million in containerized agricultural activity every year. Canadian agriculture producers were well aware that without uninterrupted access to this essential port, there would be a devastating impact on the sector.
To cite just one example, thousands of tonnes of fertilizer are imported through the Port of Montreal and farmers rely on that fertilizer. Colleagues on the House side have pointed out that if this strike continues, up to 1 million acres in Eastern Canada alone may go unfertilized.
The serious concerns about the potential closing of the Port of Montreal were raised by Conservative members in the House just last month, so there is absolutely no question that the government was aware this problem was coming. Yet nothing definitive was done, despite the work disruptions that occurred at the port last year.
In the Charter Statement that the government itself produced in relation to this bill, it argues the bill is justified because “The resumption and continuation of Port operations are important to the Canadian economy as a whole.”
The Charter Statement says:
The Bill would prevent continuing and significant harms to Canadian businesses, their employees and those who depend on their services. . . .
The statement further asserts that “These harms are exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic . . . .” The statement notes that “Prominent companies have begun to divert cargo away from the Port . . . .”
All of these legal justifications for this bill were present and apparent well before the current strike. They were evident during last year’s strike, which also occurred during the pandemic. Yet the government seems to have been paralyzed by inaction. At a minimum, it should have redoubled its mediation efforts with both parties. It should have been much more actively engaged and determined to never permit the situation to come to another work stoppage. Ministers themselves should have been directly engaged.
Every senator in this chamber is strongly committed to collective bargaining rights. But the government also has an overarching obligation to protect our economy and all Canadian workers and businesses in these very extraordinary times.
The Supreme Court of Canada itself has found that associational rights may be limited in situations that involve essential services. Such limitations may be particularly necessary in situations of “acute national emergency and for a limited period of time.”
I believe that few would argue that we are not now in a situation of acute national emergency. What I find deeply troubling is the way in which the government is handling the current problem at the Port of Montreal, in keeping with its broader approach to so many of the problems that have resulted from this global pandemic. The government is consistently reacting to external events as they occur. That was perhaps excusable in the first weeks of the crisis, but it is completely unjustifiable now.
Since the crisis began, there have been few examples of proactive action where the government has been able to get ahead of the game. I believe this is why most Canadians still have not been vaccinated and why the government is attempting to resolve problems essentially by throwing as much borrowed money as it can at those problems.
In relation to the strike at the Port of Montreal, all the government can do now is to desperately attempt to close the barn door after the horse has already left. The government has said that “The proposed legislation will end harm to Canada’s economy, which is already weakened due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
But the reality, colleagues, is that the harm has already been done. All the government can do now is to try to limit the damage.
The government has said that the solution proposed in this bill will provide the union and the employer with “a neutral process to finally resolve their years-long dispute and establish a fair, new collective agreement between them.”
But why did the government wait for the current crisis in order to take such a step? In relation to the crisis at the Port of Montreal, Perrin Beatty, the Chief Executive Officer of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, has said:
The prospect of a second strike in seven months has disrupted supply chains in all industries and hampered Canada’s economic recovery at a time of severe downturn.
We call upon all Members of Parliament to pass the bill expeditiously to prevent the serious damage a strike would have on jobs and on Canada’s economic recovery.
I also agree, colleagues, that action must be taken. I will also be voting in favour of this legislation. I just wish that this action had been taken much earlier. Thank you, colleagues.