The Covid-19 pandemic, a dockworkers strike and a rail blockage hit the Port of Montreal, which saw its cargo volumes fall in 2020 for the first time in seven years. The port says its volumes fell 14% to 35.1 million tonnes last year. As a result, its net profit was cut almost in half to $16.7 million, compared with $31.9 million a year earlier, the port said at its annual meeting.
The plunge was mainly attributable to lower operating revenues, which fell 10% to $116.6 million, while expenses remained stable at $99.9 million.
Volumes in the “liquid bulk” sector recorded the largest decline, fell 24% to 12.4 million tonnes, due to a drop in demand for petroleum products from pandemic lockdowns. “Dry bulk” volumes fell 9% to 8.4 million tonnes, mainly due to slowdowns in the construction and automotive sectors. The agri-food industry was not impacted by the pandemic due to bumper grain corps in Western Canada and soybeans in Quebec and Ontario.
The number of containers in transit also fell by 5.5% to 14.3 million tonnes or more than 1.6 million TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units) moving through the port’s five container terminals. The cancellation of the cruise season also hurt the federal agency.
Striking dockworkers returned to work on May 2 after the legislation was approved by the Senate on April 30. However, the Maritime Employers Association (MEA) said it would take several days for business to resume to normal levels. The union, which has been without a contract since December 2018, held a 10-day strike in August 2020.
However, it will take some time for cargo flows to return to normal. The port authority said terminals would handle 10 vessels, with a combined load of nearly 20,000 teu, over the coming days, but advised shippers they should expect delays.
The question is now over longer-term fallout. The back-to-work order bans the union from strike action until a new collective bargaining agreement is in place. Ottawa has indicated it would appoint a mediator in the coming days. However, previous attempts at mediation have failed and the union is challenging the back-to-work order in court, calling it “an assault on the rights of 1,150 striking workers”.
It remains to be seen if shippers feel confident their cargo will move through Montreal without disruption. The MEA and port authority have blamed shippers’ concerns about disruption for an 11% decline in the port’s throughput in March.
The port handles about C$275m-worth of business a day and about 50% of that originates or terminates outside Quebec, in the Toronto area or the US Midwest. If those shippers are not convinced that the current state of affairs guarantees smooth flows and route their cargo over other ports, the end of the latest strike would be a hollow victory.