A strike by about 350 members of UNIFOR, Canada’s largest private sector union, could cripple thousands of businesses and cause the loss of billions in economic activity if it continues, according to shipping officials.
“Every day is a critical time,” said Jayson Hron, communications director for Port of Duluth-Superior, the U.S.’ furthest inland seaport. “Approximately 55 days remain in the shipping season, so each day of this labor impasse erases about two percent of the remaining supply chain capacity and more than $70 million from the American and Canadian economies.”
After failing to reach an agreement by early morning October 22, members of five locals stretching from St. Catharines in Ontario to Montreal in Quebec, walked off the job. Members include engineers, supervisors, operations center personnel and skilled trades workers. Because UNIFOR gave a 72-hour strike notice, all vessels transiting the system in the affected areas were either moored or had left the system before the strike deadline.
The striking members are employees of the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation (SLSMC), a not-for-profit corporation the Canadian government uses to operate its portion of the system. The American side is operated by the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation, overseen by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
The Seaway is comprised of seven locks on the St. Lawrence River (between the Atlantic Ocean and Lake Ontario) and eight in the Welland Canal (between lakes Ontario and Erie,) allowing ships to rise or fall 570 feet, the distance from Lake Erie’s surface to sea level.
A shipping highway to the Midwest and beyond
While the Great Lakes support more than 120 vessels operating solely in the lakes, thousands of trips per year are made by ocean-going ships passing through the Seaway. They arrive in ports with wind turbines, bulk chemicals, steel plates and coils, auto parts and heavy machinery among other products. And they always leave with outbound cargo.
The strike couldn’t come at a worse time for farmers, Hron said.
“Especially now during peak grain harvest season,” he said. “And for a hungry world looking for grain.”
He said international ships often unload cargoes elsewhere, then head to Duluth for grain including wheat, canola, sugar beet products and flax. A ship which took on a load of wheat that departed a few days ago is destined for Algeria, though what happens when it arrives at the Welland Canal remains to be seen. Likewise for multiple vessels scheduled to arrive in Duluth and take on loads of grain during the next week.
In Detroit, eight ships that were scheduled to arrive before the end of November are in limbo and are waiting at the ocean-end of the St. Lawrence River, said John Jamian, director of operations for Detroit / Wayne County Port Authority. That includes ships arriving from Turkey loaded with cement.
“The construction industry has been aggressively building and there’s so many projects going on that demand is really high,” he said.
And while his lake freighter customers are still moving iron ore, salt and coal, he’s concerned about international shippers moving to other transportation modes, like trucks and railroads.
“You have to get those customers to come back once they’ve left,” he explained.
Union says SLSMC not bargaining in good faith
According to UNIFOR spokesman John Hockey, his members aren’t unreasonable.
“We want a fair and decent wage that shows the value our members bring,” he said. “There’s a lot of labor unrest in North America right now and people are sick and tired of the ivory tower people getting everything while the rest of us get peanuts.”
Hockey said in addition to wages, outsourcing skilled labor has been an ongoing issue and that UNIFOR has won every grievance against management in the past three years on the issue.
In-person negotiations took place in June, September and October. But Hockey said SLSMC failed to respond to UNIFOR’s offer in the hours leading up to the strike.
“We’re a thousand nautical miles apart,” he said.
SLSMC did not respond to GLN request for comment.
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Featured image: A Welland Canal lock in February during winter closure and maintenance. (Photo Credit: James Proffitt)