VANCOUVER (Reuters) - Canada's labor minister asked a federal tribunal on Wednesday to wade into the labor dispute at the Port of Montreal, amid growing concern about the shutdown's impact on the economy.
Lisa Raitt said the dispute needs to be settled by negotiation, but she has also referred the issue to the Industrial Relations Board, which has the authority to require some essential service work be restarted.
"The government's priority is to protect Canadians. I have asked the board to examine the issue of maintenance of activities at the Port of Montreal," Raitt said in a press release.
Raitt said she acted because of health and safety concerns raised because some supplies were being blocked from reaching parts of Eastern Canada. Her statement did not identify what goods she was concerned about.
Montreal's Maritime Employers Association locked out the port's more than 800 longshoremen on Monday to counter what it said were unfair union pressure tactics that were slowing freight shipments.
Representatives of the two sides are scheduled to meet Thursday and Friday with government-appointed mediators, but they have been unable to reach a new agreement since the old contract expired at the end of 2008.
Government officials have sounded the alarm about the impact of prolonged shutdown at Canada's second largest port after Vancouver.
"Obviously, we're tremendously concerned about the impact not just on the Montreal area but indeed southern Ontario and southern Quebec, the manufacturing sector, the auto sector, which is still in a fragile state of recovery," Transport Minister John Baird said in Vancouver.
Montreal is Canada's busiest eastern port and serves as a hub for freight traffic for Canada and the United States. It handled more than 1.2 million containers with about 11.3 million tons of cargo last year.
The workers, members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, have long been at odds with the employers over issues including seniority and wages, but there was little warning that a shutdown was imminent.
"We were caught completely off-guard," said Ruth Snowden, executive director of the Canadian International Freight Forwarders Association, which has asked the federal and Quebec governments to end the dispute.
Diverting cargo away from Montreal at the last minute is difficult because of railway constraints at Halifax, Canada's next largest eastern port, or because of customs issues for freight rerouted via New York or other U.S. ports, Snowden said.
The Port of Halifax said two Montreal-bound ships were rerouted and docked there on Wednesday and two more were expected Thursday.
Rather then reroute, some ships have dropped anchor outside of Montreal awaiting the outcome of mediated talks and possible government intervention.
The long-running labor dispute may also have been complicated by infighting within the union.
"They have come to a number of tentative agreements (in the past), but they have not been ratified, sometimes by very small margins, so we're very concerned and following the situation very closely," Baird said.
No ships are currently tied up in Montreal and some rail traffic has resumed, allowing freight that was loaded onto rail cars before the lockout to leave the port, according to the Montreal Port Authority.
Reporting Allan Dowd, editing by Rob Wilson