Unions across the world are outraged to learn that Justin Trudeau’s Liberal minority government had teamed up with Canada’s Conservative opposition in the early hours of Thursday morning to progress legislation to rip away Montréal dockworkers’ right to strike.
“Justin Trudeau’s government has launched an assault on the human rights of their own citizens to withdraw their labour, in direct breach of Canada’s own constitution, its laws, and its international commitments,” said Paddy Crumlin, International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) president and Dockers’ Section chair.
“The Liberals in Ottawa have made a shameful choice by siding with one of the most virulent, aggressive, anti-worker employers in North America - the Maritime Employers Association – to remove workers’ right to strike. In doing so, they are setting fire to Canada’s human rights and labour rights record.”
‘Toxic’ strike ban in violation of Canada’s international obligations
“Every worker in every country in the world has a right to withdraw their labour. No one can make you work, especially if you are withdrawing your labour as part of a legitimate collective bargaining process,” said Crumlin.
It was now up to the Canadian Senate to block the bill from becoming law to avoid contravention of the country’s constitution and international obligations, he said.
The strike ban goes against:
- Canada’s constitution (§2(d) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms);
- Canada’s Industrial Relations Board which ruled in 2020 that the Montréal dockers’ right to strike could not be restricted as their work did not amount to an essential service;
- International Labour Standards which Canada is required to uphold as by virtue of its membership of the International Labour Organization (ILO) and having ratified ILO conventions 87 and 98; and
- rulings by ILO’s Committee on Freedom of Association.
“Montreal’s dockers did the right thing. They bargained in good faith. Now it’s time for the Liberal government of Canada to do the right thing and scrap this toxic legislation,” said Crumlin.
Anti-strike law likely illegal – ITF
The ITF, which works with affiliated unions in 150 countries, said the proposed law was likely illegal.
“The emergency legislation states that ‘having regard to the negative impacts of a work stoppage at the Port of Montreal, the public interest requires an exceptional solution to address the matters in dispute so that a new collective agreement may be concluded’, on the purported basis that ports constitute an essential service,” said the ITF’s global Legal Director Ruwan Subasinghe, who is based in Montréal.
“But in 2020, Canada’s Industrial Relations Board ruled the Montréal dockers’ right to strike could not be restricted, as their work did not amount to an essential service whose interruption would pose an imminent and serious threat to the health and safety of the public – that is the test here.”
“The right to strike is protected under the Constitution of Canada. Laws like this bill could be considered an illegitimate interference in free and voluntary collective bargaining between the employer and union, especially during the course of an ongoing strike – a breach of the right to freedom of association,” he said.
“Canada is a member of the ILO. It has ratified ILO Conventions 87 and 98. Canada is obliged to uphold Conventions 87 and 98. Those are core conventions,”Subasinghe said.
CUPE 375 are fighting for their families
The Montréal strike only begun after employers in the MEA stalled negotiations for months while they actively made life harder for the dockworkers, hoping to impose even less family-friendly rosters and conditions on them. Members of Syndicat des débardeurs du port de Montréal / Local 375 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), have not had a contract since 2018, said the ITF’s Paddy Crumlin.
The union’s primary goal is to change the way work is assigned, because members find current arrangements incompatible with having a life beyond the port, which is Canada’s second-busiest.
“Right now, dockers at the port have to be available for shifts 19 of 21 designated consecutive days. The employer has the right to call those workers in on any of those days and can change the shifts from afternoon to graveyard hours overnight as its own discretion. In practice, all workers labour 19 days of the 21 before they can take leave. Honestly, who would want to work this way?” said Crumlin.
“The modern dockers workforce is diverse, with many younger workers, and with more women than in years gone by. Family and caring commitments require a healthy work-life balance, predictable rostering and enough respect from their employer to know where to draw the line between work and home. Right now, the members of Local 375 only have a work life.”
“Collective bargaining is the way we address these anti-family practices at work. It’s how we achieve a balance. By ripping away the right to strike, Justin Trudeau has shown he is content to let employers push women, parents and carers out of the workforce. That is shameful,” slammed Crumlin.
Pandemic no excuse to trash workers’ rights
Representatives of the union at the centre of the dispute, CUPE 375, said there would be significant consequences for Trudeau’s Liberal Party for the way it had sided with the controversial MEA against the interests of working people.
“The law was announced before the strike began. The legislation was tabled just hours into our legal strike. In defending it in Parliament, the Liberal’s made repeated reference to the pandemic, arguing that ‘now is not the time to strike’,” said Martin Lapierre, president of Syndicat des débardeurs du port de Montréal / CUPE Local 375.
“But if they came and asked us, instead of just reading talking points provided by MEA lobbyist and former Liberal MP Nicola Di Iorio, we could have told them about our long-standing commitment to move any containers containing essential commodities, including medical equipment, even if on strike.”
“The fact is, that we have made the offer to let medical supplies go through, publicly and repeatedly, to the Minister of Labour,” said Lapierre. “We have also offered — again, repeatedly and in public to the Minister of Labour— to return to work and continue bargaining if the employer would return to respecting the present collective agreement.”
“The Liberals have teamed up with Conservatives and big business to launch this attack on all working people. We might be the first to have our rights ripped from us – but if they are allowed to get away with this, we won’t be the last.”
“We are up for the fight – and we hope the working families of Canada and across the world stand with us. We know the ITF global union family has our backs,” Lapierre said.
Strong ITF Affiliate support for CUPE 375 in Canada and globally:
- Back-to-work legislation at the Port of Montreal is an affront to all workers in the country – Canadian Union of Public Employees
- ILWU Canada is asking workers to stand in solidarity with LE SYNDICAT DES DÉBARDEURS CUPE Local 375
- ILA expresses continued support for CUPE 375
- ILWU Statement in Solidarity with Dockworkers in Montreal
- The Seafarers’ International Union of Canada stands with the 1100 Sisters and Brothers of the Syndicat Des Débardeurs at the Port of Montreal
- Unifor stands in solidarity with the dock workers at the Port of Montreal, members of CUPE 375
About the ITF: The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) is a democratic, affiliate-led federation recognised as the world’s leading transport authority. We fight passionately to improve working lives; connecting trade unions from 147 countries to secure rights, equality and justice for their members. We are the voice for nearly 20 million working women and men in the transport industry across the world.