By Stéphane Doucet
Montreal dockworkers announced an unlimited general strike on April 23, and within a week the federal government violated their rights by forcing them back to work. The Liberals’ back-to-work legislation came into effect on none other than International Workers’ Day, May 1.
The 1150 dockworkers are members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) local 375. They have been without a contract for 2 years and the boss, the Association des employeurs maritimes (AEM), has been negotiating in bad faith. The union only launched the strike – with a vote of more than 99 percent in favour – after two separate attacks by the employer which targeted their scheduling and job security, including the imposition of mandatory longer work hours. The AEM left the bargaining table on April 27, one day into the strike and immediately after the Trudeau government tabled the back-to-work legislation.
Contract negotiations are at a standstill. The workers’ want an end to the AEM’s 19th century scheduling practices, in which they expected to work 19 days with only 2 days off. Furthermore, the schedules are only released the night before the next day’s work. The boss isn’t providing a real negotiator at the bargaining table, instead relaying information through human resources staff who have no capacity to take decisions and truly bargain. With the back-to-work order, negotiation has been effectively cancelled and an arbitrator will have the power to impose the conditions of a new contract.
In the weeks preceding the strike, tensions heated up at the Port of Montreal and the stage began to be set for anti-labour legislation. Dockworkers began overtime and weekend strikes in retaliation against job security changes which had been announced by the AEM despite being contrary to the collective agreement. This led to fears in the business community of another strike like last summers’ when the port was closed for just over a week. The Montreal Chamber of Commerce and other capitalist organizations explicitly called on the federal government to intervene, leaving little to the imagination in terms of what they meant.
There is a big elephant in this room. The government chose to force the dockers’ return to work even though the strike was in direct retaliation to specific pressure tactics by the AEM and despite the workers’ offer to call off the strike once those pressure tactics were stopped. An outside observer might ask, “Why not force the employer to rescind these attacks, which would return operations back to normal without taking sides?” Clearly, the federal government is intentionally picking a side and not simply resolving the conflict for the greater good, as it claims.
In parliament, the Conservative Party enthusiastically supported the Liberals’ strike-breaking law, which imposes possible jail time and fines up to $100,000 per day if the strike were to continue. The Bloc Québécois and NDP both vocally opposed it, but only time will tell if they maintain their commitment to a struggle which is far from over. CUPE 375 has received plenty of solidarity and support from other dockworkers across the country and around the world, the labour movement in Canada generally and from others who support democratic rights for workers.
It is unclear, though, what will happen once an arbitrator takes the reigns and imposes a collective agreement. The bureaucratic and anti-democratic nature of arbitration is quite effective at taking the whole process out of the public eye. The Canadian Union of Postal Workers can attest to this – their last contract negotiations took a very similar turn to the dockers’ current struggle.
As CUPE’s National Secretary-Treasurer Charles Fleury wrote, “The courts say time and time again that back-to-work legislation violates Charter rights, and Mr. Trudeau has made it clear today that he does not respect the Charter that his father brought in as prime minister.” This violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms isn’t a mistake nor a coincidence – these rights and freedoms exist only insofar as they allow for the continued accumulation of capital for the ruling class and the smooth functioning of business-as-usual. The Montreal dockworkers have the power to stop that, and when they do, all talk of democracy goes out the window.
[Photo: CUPE 375 Twitter]
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