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Bitter intermodal trucker strike at Montreal port

MONTREAL, Que. - Container traffic at the Port of Montreal has returned to normal after a bitter month-long wildcat strike by intermodal truckers, fighting to be recognized as a union, brought one of ...


BACK TO NORMAL:  As much as $500 million in container freight backed-up on the wharf during the height of the recent protests at the Port of Montreal.
BACK TO NORMAL: As much as $500 million in container freight backed-up on the wharf during the height of the recent protests at the Port of Montreal.

MONTREAL, Que. – Container traffic at the Port of Montreal has returned to normal after a bitter month-long wildcat strike by intermodal truckers, fighting to be recognized as a union, brought one of Canada’s busiest cargo terminals to a virtual halt.

About 250 truckers, or about 66 per cent of the group that walked out, agreed to a deal which saw them return to work Nov. 20, four weeks after the strike began.

The agreement, proposed by the Quebec government, includes a request that the province help rehire employees laid-off during the strike. Moreover, the province has promised to look into the problems that led to the strike in the first place.

The truckers, consisting mostly of owner/operators, paid a heavy price in the strike that left as much as $500 million worth of goods sitting on the quayside and lead to back-to-work legislation and a $1 million fine imposed against the truckers’ union by the Quebec government.

Although the strike also hurt the yards of Canadian National Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway, the port suffered the most. The strik was contained to the port, rail yards, and carrier depots because legislation enacted earlier in the year-after previous trucker unrest-made road blockades a criminal offence in Quebec.

The dispute started after as many as 900 drivers represented by the Syndicat National du Transport Routier (SNTR) agreed not to show up for work Monday Oct. 23. The SNTR is a branch of the Confederation des Syndicats Nationaux (CSN), one of Quebec’s biggest unions.

The independent truckers resorted to picket lines because as many as 40 trucking companies in and around the city were refusing to acknowledge requests for union accreditation offered by the CSN.

Those companies had been “systematically” fighting against their movement to unionize, John David Duncan, vice-president of the SNTR, told several hundred truckers on Oct. 22 at a rally which sparked the walkout. The SNTR had earlier that day scheduled a meeting to discuss the situation with the carriers, but none showed up for the meeting.

The drivers, who had been pushing to organize for months, were encouraged by a ruling in September by the Quebec Labor Commission which said O/O’s had a right to be viewed as employees, and not just contractors. The decision, involving 50 O/O’s working for a Montreal carrier, gave them the right to collective bargaining under Quebec law.

The strike proved to be no Halloween prank. Both Ottawa and Quebec City said Oct. 31 that they would name representatives to deal with the strike.

By Nov. 2, 10 days into the strike, the Port of Montreal got a Quebec Superior Court injunction limiting the number of picketers outside its gate to five and baring them from getting within 30 metres of its property. The port reported that the strikers broke some of the rules.

Quebec Transport Minister Guy Chevrette denounced the CSN, arguing that it had no right to orchestrate the walk out before it had received official accreditation as bargaining authority for the SNTR.

As the strike carried on, a battle over representation broke out between the CSN and rival the Quebec Federation of Labour (QFL), which is the province’s other major union and is affiliated with the Teamsters Union.

Carriers, such as Garfield Inc., calculated that by its second week, the strike was costing them between $150,000 and $200,000 a week, and they would be forced to lay off most of their employees.

The Societe des Alcools du Quebec, the province’s liquor store monopoly, claimed that about 600,000 cases of its booze was stuck sitting in 500 containers.

Fed up with the gridlock, on the night of Nov. 2, the province rushed a special law to end the strike through the National Assembly. The law demanded truckers stop blocking the port and get back to work by 8 a.m. the next day. CSN president Marc Laviolette told reporters that the law was “unjust, despicable – a truncheon law.”

In an interview with Truck News, the SNTR’s Duncan said it was “a ready-fit law, made just for them,” meaning trucking companies.

Things came to a head on Nov. 4, when a 24-year-old driver for J.A.F. Trucking, ignoring the strike, was apparently fired upon as he moved his rig though the port. Something had pock-marked the windshield as though hit by a bullet. Quebec’s provincial police soon arrested three people in connection with the strike. Two men faced charges of damaging vehicles and weapons charges. Another man was charged with making threats against the owner of an unidentified trucking company.

Quebec’s Justice Minister, noting the trucker’s disregard for the back-to-work legislation, then slapped a $1 million fine against the CSN and the SNTR, or $125,000 per day, for defying back-to-work legislation, on Monday, November 6. The strike was two weeks old.

“We will fight this in court,” insisted a CSN spokesperson.

In an interview, the SNTR’s Duncan was clearly frustrated. “The police don’t have any law like that for the bikers,” he says, comparing Quebec’s treatment of his group to how the province approaches its infamous Hell’s Angels and Rock Machine gangs. “But see, the government is ready to make laws against working people who want to have a better living.” n


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