The Strike of Montreal’s Vieux-Port Workers

“Those unions that enjoy the right to strike have no guarantee that sacrificing their jobs and their livelihood will result in victory but they nevertheless engage in lengthy strikes, not because they are assured of winning but because they are determined to fight”—William Burrus, 1998

 

Montreal prides itself as a burgeoning socio-cultural and economic hub, receiving millions of tourists from all over the world. The city is home to events such as the International Jazz Festival, heritage places such as Vieux-Montréal and the Vieux-Port (Old Port), and a large number of museums, cultural organizations and services.

Nonetheless, the situation is quite different for those involved in the functioning of the Vieux-Port and its service activities. The workers of the Société du Vieux-Port de Montréal (SVPM) are experiencing severe precarious conditions, with low two-tier income wages, in addition to lock-out threats and court injunctions to ban workers from protesting on site, among other measures.

According to Jacques Fontaine, one of the workers interviewed by Rank and File (http://rankandfile.ca/2016/09/22/striking-for-15-in-montreal/), “the company used false claims to get that injunction. Now the union is taking the head of security to court for making these false claims, which were the basis of the court injunctions”.

Ironically, the origin of the workers’ despair comes from a Crown Corporation, the Canada Lands Company (CLC), which owns SVPM. This Toronto-based company is currently applying its federal jurisdiction to impose the use of scab workers, which is forbidden under Québec jurisdiction.

According to its website, the main goal of CLC is “to acquire properties with a high potential for surplus, in order to develop real estate projects”. That would define this organization as a public agency for promoting land speculation, which coincides with the opinion of the striking workers, who stated that “CLC has very deep pockets, as it plans to obtain $180 million in profits during the period 2015-2020 (..) rather than tackling the insecurity experienced by its staff, management of the Old Port/Canada Lands instead hired strike-breakers (scabs) to continue to earn the revenues provided by the parking lots and the events held by private dealers”.

However, the response of the workers has been bold. Since May 27th, 300 unionized (Public Service Alliance of Canada, PSAC Local 10333) employees of the Old Port of Montreal have been on strike, with a strong 80% mandate. The strike began after an unsatisfactory response from SVPM to their demands: i) to increase their wage from the current level of $10.67 (16% less than Québec’s minimum wage), beyond the 9.5% increase over 4 years proposed by the employer, ii) to reduce the existing wage gap with other workers occupying similar positions in the city of Montréal, and iii) to provide paid sick days for the two-thirds of employees who do not have any. During this period, SVPM has not entered into negotiations, and instead just made the same offer three times, which reinforces workers’ determination to continue their strike.

The workers of the Vieux-Port feel they face discrimination in comparison to other city workers, who perceive a higher salary for similar jobs. The SVPM established a two-tier hiring system, which they say constitutes a deliberate strategy of the employer (to) ensure that the starting salary of new employees does not follow the increase in inflation. This trend has been depicted in a graph on the campaign’s website: vieuxportengreve.info.

In this struggle, PSAC Local 10333 workers have been supported by the labour moment in Quebec. Both the Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec (FTQ-CLC) and the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN) support the strike, as well as postal workers, students and organizations of immigrants. Quebec Solidaire and the Parti Communiste du Quebec have supported the strike, and the strikers are invited as guests of honour to the October 8th Ché soiree organized by the PCQ. The strike is a key part of the Fight for Fifteen and Fairness Campaign in Quebec, with several rallies taking place.

But reaction from the federal Liberal government has been almost non-existent, as Fontaine stated in his Rank and File interview: “We have had no support or response. We met our local Liberal MP, Mark Miller, but nothing has happened. We have tried to meet the Heritage minister, Mélanie Joly, and the minister responsible for Canada Lands Company, the Public Services & Procurement minister Judy Foot, but neither has responded. The Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, is also a local MP and he too has not met us”.

In these circumstances, the strike is a bold move to improve working conditions and to prevent further damage (given that their employer had threatened them with a lockout during the upcoming season). During strikes, workers strengthen their struggles, set the context for enhanced working conditions and reinforce unity among themselves and other unions, by establishing a long lasting solidarity and extracting inspiring lessons for future strike processes.

The following statement by Jacques Fontaine clearly summarises the goals and mood held by the workers of the Old Port of Montreal:

“This is one of the first strikes in Canada of workers fighting for a $15 minimum wage, so it is of national importance. We would ask activists and union leaders across Canada to help by:

  1. Building the fight for $15 in other areas will greatly help our struggle. This is a key issue for all the working class.
  2. Sending messages of support to PSAC Local 10333 – Old Port Workers of Montreal, Box 116, Succursale Place D’Armes, Montreal, Quebec H2Y 3H8.
  3. We would welcome financial support (cheques made payable to Syndicat des employés de la Société du Vieux-Port de Montréal, at above address).
  4. Sending letters to Prime Minister Trudeau (justin.trudeau@parl.gc.ca) urging the government of Canada to intervene in support of the workers of the Old Port of Montreal.”

People’s Voice also asks activists and union members who visit Montréal to help by respecting their picket line by not going south of Rue de la Commune at the Old Port and joining them in solidarity actions.


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