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The St Lawrence Seaway is expected to be shut this weekend after a Canadian union almost unanimously voted to strike, effectively cutting off the agricultural hinterland of Canada and the northern exporting region of the US Great Lakes from the Atlantic deepsea shipping.

Members of the UNIFOR union this week served notice to the St Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation (SLSMC), the body that manages the seaway, that it would launch action around lunchtime today – a protest at plans to introduce an automated mooring system along the waterway’s locks that could cost hundreds of jobs.

There was little indication of how long strike action could last and a UNIFOR spokesman told The Loadstar that  “the negotiations are going on behind a media blackout while progress is being made, meaning we won’t be commenting until something changes”.

The Loadstar has established that the dispute centres on an order that SLSMC placed in February with port equipment manufacturer Cavotec for 39 of its MoorMaster units to be installed at 13 locks on the Seaway.

Cavotec describes the MoorMaster system as “vacuum-based automated mooring technology that eliminates the need for conventional mooring lines. Remote controlled vacuum pads recessed in, or mounted on the quayside or pontoons, moor and release vessels in seconds”.

A MoorMaster unit has been in operation on the Welland Canal part of the seaway since 2007, according to Cavotec, with a second installed in the Beaunarnois lock 4 last year, and these experiments led SLSMC to claim that a more widespread adoption would increase efficiency and capacity of the seaway.

“With the implementation of Cavotec’s equipment, we are looking forward to welcoming more Seaway-sized vessels from the world’s fleet, as vessel operators will no longer need to equip their ships with certain Seaway-specific fittings. This will increase our access to the global fleet.  Easing access to the Seaway carries the prospect of bringing more tonnage into our locks,” said Bruce Hodgson, SLSMC’s director of market development.

However, Sheri Laekeman, president of Unifor Local 4212, which represents workers along the Welland Canal, argued that the technology represented a danger.

“Unifor is not convinced that these plans are in the best interest of the neighbouring communities, or the shipping industry.

“Having no personnel at the dock leaves the ships vulnerable to mechanical failure and the real possibility of an environmental disaster.

“That’s because the workers at the locks do much more than just secure ships in place with ropes and wires. They are the eyes and ears that keep watch for a potential crash, ready and able to act fast when needed,” she wrote in a blog this week.


St Lawrence Seaway

“Automation can be a good thing. It can make the Seaway safer and more efficient. But efficiency should never be put ahead of safety. That’s not good for the shipping industry or the Canadian economy, which both rely on the Seaway remaining accident-free.

“That’s why Unifor is calling for minimum staffing levels to be maintained at each lock after conversion to hands-free mooring. Only by having eyes and skilled hands at each lock can we ensure the safety of both the Seaway and the communities through which it flows,” she continued.

460 members of Unifor, from Niagara to Montreal, were balloted, with 96% voting in favour of strike action.

The MoorMaster system in action

An SLSMC statement said: “This modernisation programme is essential to ensuring that the Seaway can operate on a basis that is both safe and sustainable. Contrary to union allegations, SLSMC is confident that it will continue to process ships through its locks in a safe and secure manner.

“Despite UNIFOR’s strike notice, the SLSMC remains committed to obtaining a fair settlement, and will continue to bargain in good faith with the assistance of a federally appointed mediator.”

However, it warned that if the strike went ahead it would force the complete closure of the Seaway.

The MoorMaster system will have been installed at 23 terminals by the end of this year, the most notable being the APM Terminals-controlled Middle Eastern transhipment hub of Salalah, where it has been in operation since 2006.

Comment on this article

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  • Jim

    October 31, 2014 at 9:29 pm

    “The MoorMaster system will have been installed at 23 terminals by the end of this year,”

    Why did this article end with a comma? Was it cut off, or was there a typo?

    • Gavin van Marle

      October 31, 2014 at 10:01 pm

      Good spot Jim. The gremlins ate the final clause of the sentence. Fancy a job as a subeditor?