Waterfront Blues: Labour Strife at the Port of Montreal, 1960–1978


328 pages
Contains Photos, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-8020-8980-1
DDC 331.89'0413868'0971428




Reviewed by David Kimmel

David Kimmel, Ph.D., is a Montreal-based freelance writer.


This book has the makings of a good story. It’s an insider’s view of
labour–management relations in the shipping industry during a time of
great transitions. Its characters include well-known federal
politicians, Quebec union titan Louis Laberge, Judge Alan Gold, and a
young lawyer named Brian Mulroney. The author, too, is in the cast. He
was a lawyer and director of one of the shipping companies, later to
become a professor of industrial relations at the University of Toronto.

The Port of Montreal was a place of drinking, gambling, pilfering, and
featherbedding. The labour–management relationship was casual but it
worked, and despite its inefficiencies, the harbourfront was peaceful
through the first half of the 20th century. Then came the Industrial
Revolution—albeit late—in the form of containerization. The
likelihood of losing jobs to machines threatened longshoremen, and the
existing labour structure fell apart. The result was a generation of
strikes, demonstrations, grievances, all-night bargaining marathons,
back-to-work legislation, and public inquiries.

It didn’t help that neither employers nor employees spoke with a
single voice. Eventually, the owners formed the Maritime Employers
Association, and their bargaining power increased dramatically. But
there wouldn’t be peace on the waterfront until the various
parties—the shipping companies and stevedoring contractors, the
unions, and the state—struck a fair balance of work and compensation.
What saved the day was the ability of all concerned to develop effective
communications strategies.

The main problem with this book is that it is written as a “one thing
after another” narrative. Beyond the scope of the Montreal
harbourfront, smoky hotel rooms, and Parliament Hill, it has little
content to provide analytical perspective. For example, comparative
information about other ports is lacking. There is some material about
Quebec City and Trois-Riviиres, but not much about ports on the
American Eastern Seaboard. Nor is there much about other labour
conflicts in Quebec at the same time—and there were many. What is
commendable is that the author has put sufficient distance between then
and now and between himself as actor and scholar to provide a fair
analysis in retrospect.


Pathy, Alexander C., “Waterfront Blues: Labour Strife at the Port of Montreal, 1960–1978,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed November 28, 2023, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/15328.