On Monday morning, longshoremen at the Port of Montreal went on strike, the culmination of a labour dispute that has been simmering since 2018. But before the workers even hit the picket lines, the Trudeau government had prepared back-to-work legislation that would end their strike and impose a settlement on the employer’s terms. That legislation, introduced yesterday, could become law this week.

UPDATE: The legislation passed the house early Thursday morning. It must now pass the senate before it becomes law.

“Tenfold,” Fred says without hesitation. That’s how much he thinks injuries could increase for the longshoremen if an employer plan to unilaterally extend shifts becomes a reality.

Fred is not his real name. Like other longshoremen interviewed for this article, Fred fears repercussions from his employer for speaking out. But he has a lot to say.

“I sustained an injury [early on]. I have to get several treatments a week. Doing my basic job, it takes a lot out of me. So doing 30 to 50 per cent more is just inconceivable. We can’t do it.”

But they may have to, now that the federal government is trying to send them back to work.

The employer, the Maritime Employers Association, wants to increase the length of shifts by over 30 per cent, make other changes to working conditions and schedules and eliminate some of the job security that the workers secured in previous collective agreements.

“Working hours are at the heart of the conflict right now,” CUPE 375 spokesperson Marc Ranger says. The union has stated that they are willing to accept lower compensation in exchange for concessions on work-life balance and health and safety issues.

“They broke the table. Mediation is over.”

The federal government’s intervention on the side of the employer follows a familiar pattern.

“What the Liberals are doing is taking a page out of the Harper playbook,” says Charles Smith, an associate professor at the University of Saskatchewan who studies the use of back-to-work legislation.

“There’s a very specific formula being used here, which governments of all stripes have used since the 1950s. It is to claim an emergency, whether real or not, claim they’re respecting the process of collective bargaining, which of course they’re not, and by doing this they essentially give all the cards to the employer side. Strikes only work if there’s pressure on the employer, and they’ve taken all that pressure off.”

In a release, Labour Minister Filomena Tassi described the legislation as the government’s “least desired course of action.” The minister declined to be interviewed for this article, and a spokesperson declined to comment on questions about the health and safety impact of the decision.

“Nothing in the legislation prevents the parties from concluding an agreement on their own terms at any point in this process,” reads the release. “The Government continues to support the parties and strongly encourages them to reach a negotiated agreement immediately.”

Of course, that’s tough to do when one of the parties in a negotiation holds all the cards.

Employer walks away from negotiations

According to the union, the Maritime Employers Association walked away from the negotiating table on Tuesday.

“We put a proposal of settlement on the table around 3:30 this afternoon,” Ranger told Ricochet by text on Tuesday evening. “The employer came back earlier tonight and rejected it without discussion or explanation. They broke the table. Mediation is over.”

The Maritime Employers Association declined to comment for this article. Yves-Alexandre Comeau, a senior partner at public relations firm TeslaRP, provided a statement on Wednesday morning saying that the discussions were “inconclusive” and the employer was now assessing their options. In an email, Comeau added that he had been told the union’s statement was false and the employer did not walk away.

“Bullshit,” responded Ranger when asked to comment on this assertion. “They walked away. Period. And they did so without any explanation or notice to us. You can quote me on that.”

Comeau’s statement was marked as “on background,” but he declined repeated requests for a statement or interview with anyone at the Maritime Employers Association who could repeat this claim on the record. Ricochet had not agreed that the email exchange was off the record.

Back-to-work legislation may be unconstitutional

Claude also works at the port, and like Fred, his name is being withheld for fear of repercussions from the employer. “What I want to know” about the federal government, he explains, “is where they were seven months ago, or six months ago, or five months ago.”

“The employer always knew there was going to be a special law. There was always going to be a special law if we went on strike. So the employer was probably not negotiating with good intentions, because he knew that we would have a special law against the strike.”

The union has been without a contract for close to two years, and says the employer has introduced a number of delays in the negotiating process, most notably an 18-month attempt to have port workers classified as essential workers that ultimately failed.

The legislation the government has tabled gives the arbitrator the option of directly arbitrating the dispute, or asking each party to submit their last best offer and choosing one of the two. In most recent cases, the employer’s final offer has been imposed. But no matter how the arbitrator rules, the process strips workers of constitutionally protected rights.

“You see no difference between federal Liberals and federal Conservatives on this issue.”

“If you manage to talk to the minister or one of her staffers,” says Smith, “I’d love to know the answer [to this question]. What happened to the constitutional right to collective bargaining that the Supreme Court upheld in 2007, or the constitutional right to strike [upheld] in 2015?”

“When you have two parties and one of the two parties is expecting legislation, is expecting an arbitration, with the kind of ‘last, best offer’ in the legislation, it does not help the balance that we need at the bargaining table,” Ranger told Ricochet.

“We don’t want to strike. It is sad that we came to that point where we had no choice,” he added. “Our strategy was absolutely not this, it was to continue to negotiate. Workers are prepared to lose a little bit of their wages, to get improvements in their working conditions.”

Ranger underlined that the union has repeatedly offered to suspend their strike and pressure tactics, in exchange for a return to the working conditions that were in place prior to April 9 while negotiations proceed.

“If the employer knew that there would be no intervention from the government, we would have a deal right now. That’s what is sad.”

Legal challenges take too long

“As we know from research, when governments do this real problems on the ground never really get solved effectively because you’ve taken all the power out of the hands of the workers,” Smith says.

“They call it permanent exceptionalism. Where governments can say, ‘Listen, we respect collective bargaining, but we have an emergency and we have to act because the greater public good demands it,’ conveniently forgetting that if you do this all the time, it becomes a permanent exception. This is what governments do when strikes threaten the status quo.”

Smith notes that in situations where the employer has the upper hand, governments tend not to intervene. When they do intervene, their actions tilt the playing field in ways that would likely not survive a court challenge. But court challenges typically take too long to be helpful. The Canadian Union of Postal Workers won a case against the government over the use of back-to-work legislation in 2011, but by the time the court ruled it had long since become a moot point.

“You see no difference between federal Liberals and federal Conservatives on this issue. It’s the same language. You might as well put those comments on a loop, because they say the same thing, and they have since the 1950s.”

Smith says the government can’t have it both ways, saying it supports collective bargaining and the right to strike while passing back-to-work legislation that takes away those rights.

“It’s interesting that those with all of the economic and political power get to define what an emergency is, and then intervene with almost no checks and balances.

“At some point we have to stop believing the lie that they do respect collective bargaining.”

What’s the emergency, minister?

“If I was talking to the minister right now,” adds Smith, “I would ask, ‘What’s the emergency?’ Are these workers blocking COVID-19 vaccine shipments? Because to me that would be an emergency. But workers are not selfish, they understand these things. They’re not going to block COVID-19 vaccines, so what’s the emergency?”

Ranger says the union has been clear from the start that strike or no strike, their workers will show up to unload any containers designated as essential. He says there’s no chance that their actions could lead to delays in vaccines or essential supplies reaching their destination.

“From what I can tell, it’s a bunch of employers who want to ship their products and their profit margins are in jeopardy,” concludes Smith. “They’re the ones calling on the minister to do this.”

Workers like Fred and Claude say they’re doing this for their families, and they don’t understand why their employer refuses to take their concerns seriously.

“I worked in so many different workplaces,” says Fred. “I worked in strip clubs when I was young. I’ve never met bosses, including strip club owners, that are so resentful and just tough and stupid with their employees. I’ve never seen it. It’s like they thoroughly believe that a frustrated employee is a productive employee. To their core, they’re convinced of that. I can’t understand how anyone would treat somebody like this and then expect them to do a good job for them.”

“If the shift was seven hours, would that lead to more injuries? I would say yes,” adds Claude. “At least 50 per cent of my coworkers have something that is hurting, and it comes from the work. If the shifts are longer, there are going to be more injuries. That’s for sure.”

They say they feel like pawns in a larger political game that has stripped them of the right to strike — their only recourse against unsafe and unfair changes to their working conditions.

“I feel betrayed by electoral considerations,” Fred says. “If we weren’t so close to Trudeau calling an election because he sees a majority looming, there’s no way he would go for back-to-work legislation.”

“The economy is so goddamn fragile when it comes to a bunch of workers in Montreal, but it’s so resilient otherwise. I mean, c’mon man! Who is buying into this?”