Negotiations were resuming today in Vancouver in the presence of federal mediators between maritime employers and the International Longshore & Warehouse Union Canada representing 7,400 strike-bound port and terminal workers in 29 ports in British Columbia. The ILWU has given a 72-hour notice of a strike of unspecified duration to begin this Saturday at 8.00 am PDT if no tentative settlement with the BC Maritime Employers Association for a new collective agreement is not reached in the meantime.
The longshoremen have been without a contract since the end of March. Earlier this month, the union members voted by more than 99% to launch a strike.
Canadian business groups, including the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade and the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, have raised a cry of alarm over the potential impact on the Canadian economy and foreign trade if cargo-handling disruptions hit especially the major ports of Vancouver and Prince Rupert.
Canada’s West Coast ports handle almost C$225 billion worth of cargo a year and are vital for Midwest manufacturers and the auto industry. It is estimated that approximately 15% of container volume moving through the Port of Vancouver is destined to or from the U.S., with items transported by rail including many consumer products, from apparel to electronics and home goods.
Under the Canadian labor code, ocean bulk vessels carrying grain would not be impacted by a strike whose biggest focus would affect container ships – notably those calling at the ports of Vancouver and Prince Rupert, Canada’s chief gateways to Asia.
“The Union is seeking a fair deal that respects longshore workers, one that protects our jobs and our jurisdiction,” declared ILWU president Rob Ashton earlier this week. “We are seeking recognition for the hard work and sacrifices that Longshore Workers made during the pandemic and the extraordinary work that Longshore Locals did in getting workers out to the terminals during the lockdowns.”
The ILWU indicated its main objectives were to stop the erosion of work through contracting out, to protect current and future generations from “the devastating impacts” of port automation, and to protect longshore workers from record-high Inflation and the skyrocketing cost of living.
“But the employers and their bargaining agent, the BCMEA have repaid our hard work and dedication with demands for major concessions. Their only objective is to take away rights and conditions from longshore workers after having gorged themselves on record profits during the pandemic,” the ILWU alleged.
In response, the BCMEA stated that its bargaining committee “has advanced multiple proposals and positions in good faith, with the objective of making progress and achieving a fair deal at the table.
In Ottawa, Seamus O'Regan, Minister of Labour, and Omar Alghabra, Minister of Transport, urged “the parties to get back to the bargaining table and work together to reach an agreement. Everyone — the employer, the union, the mediators, and the government — understands the urgency and what is at stake for Canadians and our supply chains. The parties are responsible for moving goods both nationally and internationally, and industries and consumers would feel the effects of a work stoppage.
The federal government has, thus far, vowed faith in the bargaining process. It has avoided saying it could intervene directly by imposing back-to-work legislation, as has happened sometimes in the past when prolonged labour conflicts have had severe national economic repercussions.
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