Published: Aug 14 at 4:30 p.m.
Updated: 1 hour ago
There is no joy at the Port of Halifax about labour strife at its largest Canadian competitor.
There is no denying there has been an increase in activity in Halifax due to an ongoing labour dispute at the Port of Montreal, which has been briefly beneficial to the local terminal operators and longshoremen, but in the longer term it could have a negative effect on all Canadian ports.
An industry observer told me on Friday that companies in Asia shipping goods through ports on the East Coast of North America could very well take a look at what’s happening in Montreal, assume all of Canada has a problem and decide to bypass this country altogether.
That isn’t good news for the long-term effort to attract more business to Halifax, the observer said. The hope is that the companies bringing additional business to the Nova Scotia port will be pleased by the performance at Halifax and will consider bringing more trade to the port even after the Montreal situation has been settled.
Longshore men and women in Montreal, members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 375, began an indefinite strike Monday after talks with the Maritime Employers Association (MEA) in Montreal broke down.
The union has been without a contract since December 2018. It has been reported that both sides have had more than 60 negotiating sessions since that time but the sides have not been close to a settlement.
The walk out on Monday by the CUPE members is the fourth staged in Montreal since July 1. The employers complain that Montreal is adversely affecting about 6,000 business, including some in Atlantic Canada.
It has been reported that CUPE’s main complaint is the lack of a work-life balance. The union local has said its 1,225 members — heavy machinery operators, signalers, ship handlers, electricians and mechanics — work 19 consecutive days before receiving a day off, according to the Journal of Commerce.
Lane Farguson, who speaks on behalf of the Halifax Port Authority, said he didn’t want to get into the details or comment on what may be happening at another port, but added that supply chains are interconnected.
“What happens with one link will have an impact across the entire chain. We are seeing cargo diversions through Halifax, which means an increase in cargo, and we are working closely with the terminal operators, CN Rail and the hardworking men and women of the ILA (International Longshoreman’s Association) workforce to manage that increase,” Farguson said.
Empty containers have been strategically stored at different locations away from the terminals, he said, to free up space at the terminals – PSA Halifax (formerly known as Halterm) in the city’s south end and the Fairview Cove terminal operated by Ceres in the north end.
Things are busy at the terminals, said Farguson. Rail service out of Halifax has increased and so have the hours of operation at the terminals.
“It’s important to keep in mind that this (added activity) is not Halifax cargo we are seeing. This would normally be moving through a different port and other East Coast ports are working to manage this situation to keep the supply chain fluid.”
Another industry insider, who asked not to be identified, said he believes the stockpile of goods brought to North America at the start of the COVID-19 crisis has been largely used up. North American companies are restocking now, and that has helped to increase shipments from Asia.
While Montreal has not completely shut down, the bulk of the cargo normally handled in that port is being diverted to Saint John, N.B. and Halifax. U.S. ports like New York are also believed to be handling some of the Montreal cargo.
“Our focus right now is to do all that we can to ensure our regular services receive precedence and that cargo normally moving through Halifax continues to do so with the efficiency and reliability we are known for,” Farguson said. “Following that, we are working to accommodate requests as capacity allows.”
The federal government has stated it would not intervene in the Montreal port dispute, but industry people I spoke to on Friday suspect there will be a limit to Ottawa’s non-involvement, considering Montreal’s importance as an economic centre and a political one.