On July 25, 2016 the Port of Churchill, owned by Denver-based company OmniTRAX, laid off its workforce after the start of another season. Employees, who are in the middle of negotiating a new collective agreement, were caught completely off-guard.
“Our members were blind-sided,” said Teresa Eschuk, Regional Vice-President of the Union of Canadian Transportation Employees (UCTE), a component of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) and the Union that represents the workers at the Port. “There was no discussion, no warning, nothing.” Members were called to a meeting at 3:30 p.m. on Monday afternoon and given the news.
“Our concern is for the community as a whole,” said Marianne Hladun, Regional Executive Vice-President with the PSAC. “It’s not like there’s another employer in town that can absorb these workers.” With the closure of the Canadian Wheat Board the number of employees at the Port of Churchill has been declining. There were approximately 60 unionized employees working at the port last year. UCTE/PSAC anticipated at least this number of people to return for the season.
Churchill Manitoba is a small community of approximately 800 people which can only be accessed by rail or air. The Port of Churchill was the largest employer in the town, employing approximately 10% of the population during seasonal operations.
OmniTRAX, which owns the Port of Churchill, refuses to communicate with the Union. In fact, Merv Tweed is quoted as saying “to some degree our business has been too much of a public interest. We’re a private company doing private business.”
“We have been told nothing about this,” said Hladun of the layoffs. “For months we have been asking for information about the potential sale of business and they ignored us. I’m not surprised by the lack of communication on this one.”
UCTE/PSAC is actively trying to get answers from OmniTRAX and is committed to working with other stakeholders. “The Port of Churchill is not just a place of work but an integral part of the town. The possible closure of the port could mean the end for a struggling northern community,” said Eschuk.