Ottawa intervenes in Port of Montreal dispute following warning by business group about lockout's damage; federal government must ensure 'health and safety of the public are not jeopardized,' says labor minister

MONTREAL , July 22, 2010 () – Federal Labour Minister Lisa Raitt has referred the Port of Montreal dispute to the Canadian Industrial Relations Board.

The action was taken yesterday in response to concerns raised about the supply of goods to Newfoundland and Labrador, Raitt's office said in a statement.

"We must ensure that the health and safety of the public are not jeopardized," Raitt said in the statement.

About half of the goods destined for Newfoundland go through Montreal's port, that province said Monday, the first day of the longshoremen's lockout in Montreal.

The longshoremen's union and the association representing shipping lines are to meet with CIRB officials Saturday morning in Montreal.

"We understand that (the federal government) wants us to unload ships that carry medications and goods related to health," said Daniel Tremblay, president of CUPE Local 375, the Longshoremen's Union.

This morning, Tremblay, other union officials and representatives of the Maritime Employers Association are to meet with federal mediators in a session tentatively set before the lockout began.

The union has been without a contract since Dec. 31, 2008. Both parties have been in conciliation or mediation for months.

The labour dispute revolves mainly around wage and job security issues.

Raitt's move came hours after Quebec's largest employers group held a news conference in Montreal and urged Raitt to use all the tools at her disposal, including legislation, to reopen the port quickly.

"Our members are suffering right now," said Yves-Thomas Dorval, president of the Conseil du patronat du Quebec, after two Quebec businessmen described their plight.

Layoffs and business losses in the millions of dollars will hurt Quebec's economy while consumers will ultimately bear the cost of the debacle, Dorval said.

Raitt's referral to the CIRB doesn't go far enough or promise an open port soon enough, Dorval said in an interview last night.

Quebec businesses need an "intervention (for) the health of our economy," said Dorval, whose association is hoping for "the use of more expeditious ministerial powers." His association says "the Port of Montreal should be considered an essential service."

Canada's second-largest port handles about 90 per cent of Quebec's imports, he noted.

Dorval's argument may hold water, said Anil Verma, professor of industrial relations at University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management.

Determinations of essential services change over time. At one time, Canada Post was considered an essential service, he noted.

At yesterday's news conference, Dorval was asked when he would like to see Raitt take action. An executive of Cascades Inc. replied in his stead. "Yesterday," said Hubert Bolduc, whose company has a crucial piece of machinery stacked among the containers sitting at the idled port.

The paper machine is the centrepiece of a $20-million investment at one of Cascades' Quebec plants, he said. About 80 people, including outside contractors, are to start preparing for its installation at the beginning of August.

Also in a container at the port are beauty products from France that are to be part of a new product launch for Dutal Inc., a Brossard company with about 35 employees.

Extensive plans have been made for the new products that are expected to be on the shelves of 500 Quebec stores the first week of August.

Dutal has about $200,000 riding on the venture and has spent about $60,000 on things such as preprinted advertising that cannot be recovered.

"We have had the rug pulled out from under us," said company president Alain Quintal, who anticipates layoffs at his firm if its container isn't delivered soon.

The Maritime Employers Association, which represents shipping companies and negotiates with port workers in various Canadian cities, announced the lockout Sunday night, saying that union pressure tactics had caused an unacceptable level of uncertainty at the port.

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