Deal reached to reopen St. Lawrence Seaway after weeklong strike

By Dean Iorfida
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The Pointer

After a weeklong strike left commercial ships stranded in Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, the Welland Canal reopened Monday at 7:00 a.m. after a tentative agreement was reached between the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation (SLSMC) and Unifor, the union representing 360 workers.

The tentative agreement covers Niagara Locals 4211 and 4212, which represent those who work in the supervisory and engineering positions and the maintenance, operations, and clerical roles responsible for various tasks at the majority of the 15 locks along the seaway. 

Details of the tentative agreement will not be made public until ratified by the membership, but Daniel Cloutier, Unifor Quebec Director indicated that the members had secured “better wages and working conditions for all.”  A vote will be scheduled in the coming days.

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 rejected a tentative agreement in August. A notice to strike was issued on October 18th, with members hitting the picket lines at 12:01 am on Sunday, October 22nd.  When it became apparent that a settlement was not in the offing, Unifor characterized the parties as, “1,000 nautical miles apart on wages.”  

With the economic impact of up to $100 million per day across Canada and the United States, according to the Chamber of Marine Commerce, with each day the strike continued, there was mounting pressure to get a deal signed.  On Tuesday, October 24th, Government of Canada’s Federal Mediation and Conciliation Services announced that the resumption of talks was scheduled for Friday, October 27th, in Toronto. Talks continued over the weekend with the tentative agreement announced Sunday evening.

The weeklong strike saw shipping cease along the St. Lawrence Seaway and the eight locks located within the Welland Canal, during one of the busiest times of the year for the waterway. The Chamber of Marine Commerce described the strike’s impact:”[S]talling the movement of key cargoes, including grain that feeds the world, salt that ensures safety on roads during winter, iron ore for steelmaking and auto manufacture, and construction materials for housing and infrastructure, ultimately leads to increased costs to consumers at a time when inflation is already hurting people.”

The economic impact was not lost on the Niagara mayors along the Welland Canal corridor, who issued a joint statement last week pushing for both sides of the St. Lawrence Seaway labor disruption to get back to the bargaining table.  

“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.  Marine cargo and vessel activity along the Seaway generates approximately $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.

Upon learning of the tentative agreement St. Catharines Mayor Mat Siscoe tweeted on social media platform X (formerly known as Twitter): ”[E]xcellent news.  While the disruption was not a good thing, a mutually agreed-to contract is.”

With the Chamber of Marine Commerce calling for a full and fast resumption of Seaway operations, employees were back to work at 7:00 a.m..  The SLSMC indicated that they would be implementing a recovery program immediately that would start passing ships “progressively” throughout the coming days.  At 12:30 p.m. Monday, showed a half a dozen ships traversing the Welland canal with approximately 20 anchored in the two lakes.