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Canadian seaway strike puts pause on Port of Cleveland trans-Atlantic shipping

Framed by tugboats, Will Friedman, the president and CEO of the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority, speaks at a lectern with a sign reading, "Keep Our Port Strong."
Nick Castele
Ideastream Public Media
Will Friedman, the president and CEO of the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority, calls the shutdown caused by the strike "a matter of grave concern."

A lock-worker strike along the St. Lawrence Seaway has put a temporary halt to Port of Cleveland’s international shipping connections.

350 union lock workers in Canada went on strike Sunday leading to a shutdown of the 2,340 mile seaway. The transportation route connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes allowing for the import and export of goods.

There are 15 locks along the route that require workers to keep them up and running. 13 of the locks are Canadian-owned and operated, Port of Cleveland’s Chief Commercial Officer Dave Gutheil said, and will be out of commission for as long as the strike lasts.

“The Canadian workers at those locks that have gone on strike,” he said. “Due to that, the system is shut down currently for transatlantic or international trade.”

Internal shipments, like iron ore that comes from the northern Great Lakes region, will not be affected by the strike, Gutheil said. But international goods will need to be shipped in ways that may be less energy and cost efficient.

“Instead of coming via an all-water situation into the Port of Cleveland, which is more ... economic for those companies that are buying the goods, it’s more energy efficient, they're going to have to truck all that cargo from East Coast ports here, which will be more expensive for them to move,” he said.

Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority President and CEO Will Friedman wrote letters to Canadian Minister of Transport Pablo Rodriguez, Minister of Labor Seamus O’Regan and U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg Tuesday, urging the officials to arrange a meeting between Unifor, the union representing the lock workers, and the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation before the shutdown effects Cleveland businesses. The two sides have agreed to resume talks on Friday.

"This shutdown is a matter of grave concern for us and numerous local businesses, given its substantial economic ramifications,” Friedman wrote. “This vital waterway is the linchpin of trade and the movement of goods to and from Cleveland. The interruption is particularly disruptive, occurring just before the end-of-season cargoes are expected, and as winter approaches. The consequences include a halt in exports from Cleveland to overseas destinations, and end-of-year cargoes cannot reach businesses relying on them in Cleveland.”

The Port of Cleveland and local business will really start to feel the economic pinch if the strike isn’t settled within the next ten days, Gutheil said.

The strike comes during the port’s busy season just as it is preparing to receive end-of-year shipments before the seaway closes for the winter season.

“Typically, we're busier really September through the middle of December,” he said. “That's because a lot of users of the system, companies that own the goods and are importing the goods are trying to get their goods and their cargoes into the system before the system is shut down for maintenance. So, this is really our busiest time of the year, no doubt.”

This is the first time the seaway has shut down during the shipping season due to labor action since 1968, Gutheil said.

“We're doing everything we can as well as other ports are in the system, like our counterparts in Toledo and Milwaukee and Duluth, Minnesota, to put as much pressure as we can on the two sides to get back to the negotiating table and get an agreement done,” he said.

Zaria Johnson is a reporter/producer at Ideastream Public Media covering the environment.