Welland Canal strike has devastating impact on Niagara’s economy—much of Ontario
With a strike that has seen the closure of the Welland Canal since Sunday at midnight, the Federal government has called upon the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation and Unifor Canada to return to the negotiating table in Toronto on Friday morning, October 27.
Unifor, Canada's largest private-sector union, representing 315,000 workers, including St. Catharines-based Locals 4211 and 4212, indicated it will comply with the call to mediation, as the strike is about to enter a sixth day. The St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation (SLSMC), a not-for-profit corporation established by the Government of Canada, which manages and maintains the locks and waterway from Montreal to Lake Erie, including the eight locks located within the Welland Canal, welcomed the resumption of talks as confirmed by Government of Canada’s Federal Mediation and Conciliation Services.
On Tuesday, the Welland Canal Mayors of Port Colborne, Welland, Thorold and St. Catharines released a joint statement pushing for both sides of the St. Lawrence Seaway labour disruption to get back to the bargaining table, as ships remained lake-bound at both ends of the canal.
Welland Mayor Frank Campion said in the statement, “[T]he current labour dispute can be short-lived. But it is up to all parties involved to continue working together, communicating, and sourcing a fair and expedient outcome to a work stoppage that could have long-lasting consequences.”
The St. Lawrence Seaway and Welland Canal closed at 12:01 a.m. on Sunday, October 22nd when the parties were unable to reach an agreement prior to the strike deadline set by Unifor, sending approximately 350 workers of five locals to the picket lines. In a news release SLSMC characterized the impasse as Unifor’s insistence on “automotive type” negotiations, an allusion to Unifor’s recent settlement on behalf of General Motors (GM) auto workers, that saw base hourly wage increases of nearly 20 percent for production and 25 percent for skilled trades over the lifetime of the agreement.
Daniel Cloutier, Unifor Quebec Director argued that, “[T]he employer has shown no willingness to address the workers’ concerns in the workplace or approach them with a respectful wage offer. These are jobs that require intense training, a high level of understanding of the health and safety risks, and that carry enormous responsibility for the wellbeing of seafarers and their cargo. They are irreplaceable.”
Negotiations between the parties, with a conciliator, began over two days in June, with five additional dates at the end of September. Unifor members in the supervisory and engineering group, which includes Local 4211, rejected a tentative agreement in August, aligning with the maintenance, operations and administrative unit. All units issued a notice to strike on October 18th, with the parties negotiating until the strike deadline at midnight Sunday.
When it became apparent that a settlement was not in the offing, Unifor in a release characterized the parties as, “1,000 nautical miles apart on wages.”
The Welland Canal is 44km in length, connecting Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.
While the parties may have not been able to agree to a negotiated settlement, there is little debate on the economic importance of the St. Lawrence Seaway and Welland Canal to the national and regional economies and its key role in the supply chain of goods.
The group representing approximately 28,000 grain farmers across Ontario, who produce wheat, soybean and corn, along with other crops, has asked Ottawa to keep these staple foods moving across the St. Lawrence Seaway while the work stoppage continues, to ensure consumers get what they need and to help farmers and distributors avoid economic loss.
An economic impact study released this year by Martin Associates, on behalf of the SLSMC, estimated that marine cargo and vessel activity along the Seaway generated a total $12.3 billion of economic activity in the U.S. and Canada annually. The Niagara Region’s Economic Development department had previously noted that 78 percent of the seaway’s economic activity passes through Niagara via the Welland Canal.
In the joint statement of the Welland Canal mayors, Port Colborne Mayor Bill Steele emphasized the economic importance: “While I extend my empathy to the employees currently engaged in this strike, it is important to recognize that the seamless flow of goods through the Great Lakes stands at the core of our regional economy along the Canal. Prolonged labor unrest has the potential to send ripples of disruption across various sectors throughout North America."
The Martin Associates study reported that 36.3 million tonnes of cargo is moved through the St. Lawrence Seaway and Welland Canal at a value of $16.7 billion. Agricultural and mining products each account for 40 percent of the Seaway’s trade, while 10 percent is from processed and manufacturing products, such as fuel, chemicals, forestry and animal products, and the remainder made up of iron and steel products.
According to the Seaway’s annual toll report, 2022 saw 3,152 vessels pass through the Welland Canal, including 535 non-cargo or passenger vehicles. This year, eighty cruise ships made calls to Port Colborne’s waterfront, the last of which departed the day before the Canal closed.
Whether Friday’s session will bridge the “nautical miles” between the parties, the remaining time in the shipping season is limited. The Welland Canal traditionally closes between December and March.
“The Welland Canal is a critical piece of marine transportation infrastructure that enables the global movement of goods through the St. Lawrence Seaway System,” Thorold Mayor Terry Ugulini said in the joint statement.
“This unique asset has enabled the growth of the Niagara Ports-Thorold location that leverages the multimodal infrastructure that connects marine, rail, and road to support local jobs in the agriculture, logistics, and manufacturing sectors of the Niagara economy. The free movement of ships through this marine corridor is fundamental to the prosperity of communities throughout North America and globally.”
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