Lisa Djevahirdjian | CUPE Communications

On April 30, 2021, Prime Minister Trudeau’s Liberal government, with the support of the Conservative party caucus, voted in favour of legislation forcing longshore workers at the Port of Montreal, who had been on a general strike, back to work.

On May 1, CUPE 375 – the longshore workers union –led the International Workers’ Day march in Montreal.

At the event the union representative and spokesperson for CUPE 375 stated that “The rights to free collective bargaining of striking longshore workers have been restricted by the passage of back to work legislation in the House of Commons. We’re pleased to march along with our brothers and sisters to mark this International Workers’ Day, even though it’s a really sad day for union members across the country. We clearly have a long way to go to protect the hard-earned free collective bargaining rights of workers.”

It takes two to negotiate

The collective agreement of CUPE 375 expired in December 2018. Discussions with the employer bogged down mainly on the issues of schedules and life-work balance.

The negotiations were quite tough, because the Maritime Employers’ Association (MEA) simply didn’t want to negotiate. The employer wasted more than a year and a half in their attempt to have the entire port declared an essential service. The Canadian Labour Relations Board (CLRB) did not rule in their favour. The MEA did everything it could to get the government to vote on back to work legislation, even though such legislation restricted basic bargaining rights.

CUPE is preparing a challenge of this legislation before the courts, and a complaint has been filed with the International Labour Organization (ILO).

An avoidable strike

When the parties were still at the bargaining table in early April, the employer was first to resort to pressure tactics against the union by taking their job security away. The union responded to this affront by declaring a partial strike affecting overtime, which was extended to weekend work.

The employer again stepped up the pressure tactics by changing the way their schedules were structured, which made work-life balance even more difficult. The union responded with notice of an unlimited general strike.  However, at a press conference announcing when the strike would begin, the union offered to withdraw all strike notices if the employer would end its pressure tactics. The MEA refused.

Nonetheless, the parties did continue talks during the first few days of the strike – but as soon as the employer found out that back to work legislation was being drafted, they walked away from the bargaining table.

The right to strike is an important part of the power equation between unions and employers. If an employer knows that the government will pass special legislation denying the right to strike to a union, it removes the incentive for employers to negotiate.