CLEVELAND — A labor dispute in another country usually has little impact on things here in Northeast Ohio, but that is not the case this week. On Sunday, several hundred union workers in Canada walked off the job, shutting down the St. Lawrence Seaway and cutting off entirely the flow of shipping traffic between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean.
Vessels in the seaway were able to make their way through, but no new traffic has been allowed in, leaving more than a hundred ships literally stranded outside the seaway system.
“So, at this point, they are basically at anchor, and they are waiting for a resolution to this conflict. Which means that they are full of essential cargo that cannot get to its destination ports,” said Guillaum Dubreuil of Canada Steamship Lines.
One of those ports is Cleveland. Three of those stranded ships just left here Tuesday; several more are trying to make their way in.
“We haven’t felt the impact yet, but if this drags on another week, we certainly will,” said Dave Gutheil, Chief Commercial Officer with the Port.
The St. Lawrence Seaway consists of 15 locks between Lake Erie and Montreal, including the Welland Canal, which connects Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. The route used to bring Cleveland its number one import, high-grade steel from Europe.
“And that goes to local manufacturers and gets made into various types of fasteners like nuts, bolts and screws,” said Gutheil. “It gets made into food grade tin cans, automobile parts, battery casings. So any of those folks that receive that cargo down the line in the supply chain will certainly see a shortage of cargo in the coming weeks if this doesn’t get resolved.”
Twenty-two thousand jobs are tied to the cargo that comes through the Port of Cleveland. That’s why the Port sent letters to Canadian and U.S. officials calling the shutdown a matter of grave concern for the port and local businesses and asking them to intervene in resolving this quickly.
“This vital waterway is the linchpin of trade and the movement of goods to and from Cleveland,” said Port President and CEO Will Friedman. “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.”
It’s a call echoed by Senator Sherrod Brown. “I always support workers and the dignity of work,” said Brown. “I’m concerned what this does down river, if you will, and what it does to Lake Ontario and Lake Erie and Ohio to get grain to market and manufacturing products out.”
“We’re working with the administration to see if there’s a way they can help the Canadians to fix this. It’s not for us to tell the Canadians what to do, but it’s up to us to cross border work whenever we can to help each other, and I’m asking the administration to do that,” Brown said.
The folks at the Port of Cleveland, meanwhile, watch and wait.
“We’re frustrated,” said Gutheil. “That the goods either can’t get to the local companies that are using them or exporters who are exporting cargo on our container service can’t get their goods out to the global economy.”