Shortly after 9:00pm on the night of 18th July, the Maritime Employer’s Association (MEA) released a short bulletin: as of the following morning, the longshoremen of CUPE Local 375 would be locked out of the port of Montreal, closing it indefinitely. This action followed over two years of negotiations with the union, during which the workers have been working without a contract. In the official press release, the MEA complained of union pressure tactics that “have begun to impede Port operations,” while warning the union to “look more realistically at the challenges ahead.”
The MEA is seeking to dismantle the guaranteed revenue clause of the contract, which expired in 2008. Unlike in most ports, longshoremen in Montreal are not paid piecemeal depending on how many ships come into port—an understandably unreliable way of earning a living. Since the Common Front general strike in 1972, they have been guaranteed a 35-40 hour week, no matter how much traffic the port receives. This small fragment of stability is being roundly condemned by the MEA, who complains that they are paying people for not working, apparently unfamiliar with the newfangled concept of an hourly wage.
The closing of the world’s largest inland port provoked two starkly different responses. At a press conference held at noon on the following day, the union spoke out with a mixture of defiance and confidence. David Tremblay, the president of CUPE 375, asserted that there would be “international solidarity” with the union as long as the 850 workers remained locked out. In particular, the longshoremen in Halifax, Norfolk, and New York had been informed of the situation. “They won’t touch ships that come from Montreal,” said Tremblay. CUPE official Michel Murray dismissed the lockout as “a piece of theatre” by the MEA, and warned against government intervention.
In contrast to the steady determination of the workers, who throughout the five-day lockout peacefully picketed the port, we saw a kind of hysteria take hold of the Canadian bourgeoisie. In a press conference less than three days into the affair, Quebec’s largest employers’ association, despairing of their own resources, called upon the federal labour minister to bring the lockout to an end. With a declaration of fear and concern, the business leaders of Quebec tried to force the government to intervene, out of sympathy with their plight. “Our members are suffering right now. They are looking ahead and they are very, very scared,” said the group’s president, Yves-Thomas Dorval.
While several hundred increasingly isolated longshoremen demonstrated at the docks on behalf of their co-workers, the bosses were painting them as a malicious force responsible for the unhappy fate of the Quebec capitalists. AbitibiBowater, the largest newsprint manufacturer in North America, was being “forced” to consider layoffs by the cruel march of events, while Cascades Inc. has had to delay a new investment worth $20-million. “We’ve had to re-evaluate the timing of our project,” said company spokesperson Hubert Bolduc. Susan Schutta, a spokesperson for Walmart, warned that keeping the port closed would have “a serious impact on all businesses…”, while stating that their stores had sufficient stock to meet the present demand. In such a dire situation, the Gazette declared, “Too much is at stake to allow this labour dispute to hold the province ransom. The federal government has a mediator at the table, but if it finds it needs to get even more directly involved, it should act, and fast.” The lockout by the Montreal port bosses was unsustainable precisely because of the damage it was doing to the wider capitalist class.
The Montreal port bosses succeeded in getting the courts to issue an injunction, calling on the dockworkers to return to their jobs and ending the union’s work-to-rule campaign. However, the injunction came at a high price for the bosses. The injunction restored the dockworkers’ job security, guaranteeing them full-time hours regardless of the amount of traffic that the port of Montreal receives. The MEA is now pretending that caving in to the union’s demands was part of their plan all along!
The battle over this has been long, but it is not over—the agreement reached only lasts until October. Undoubtedly, the bosses will once again attempt to get more concessions out of the dockworkers; if so, then the workers will need to be prepared to fight and even possibly go out on strike.
Aside from getting some temporary job security, the most important aspect of this struggle so far has been the lessons received by the workers. The lockout shows just how important the port of Montreal is to capitalism, and how much power the workers hold by shutting the port down. Furthermore, the confusion and in-fighting by the ruling class reveals what is possible if workers are firm in their resolve and willing to fight back. We can be sure that if the Montreal dockworkers had not worked-to-rule and threatened to go out on strike, they would not have even won the temporary agreement that they now have.
But, this is only the first step in the workers’ struggle. In the end, if they are to win, the workers cannot work alone—neither in Montreal, nor in Halifax, nor even in New York, Norfolk, or Vancouver. Any conquest by the capitalists in any city would give them more strength for the next fight. The only way to avoid this is to win—and to win completely. This triumph can only come if the workers are united at every point of struggle, no matter how small or insignificant it seems, no matter how distant or remote its location, in order to hold the line, and advance towards victory.