Union and employers trade barbs as BC ports strike continues

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by Emily Atkins

Talks at the negotiating table have disintegrated into a war of words between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and the BC Maritime Employers Association (BCMEA), as the union’s strike at 30 BC ports goes into its sixth day.

After the strike by 7,400 members of the union began on July 1, talks had continued with a mediator until July 3rd.

At the end of the day on July 3, the BCMEA issued a statement saying: “ILWU Canada went on strike over demands that were and continue to be outside any reasonable framework for settlement. Given the foregoing mentioned, the BCMEA is of the view that a continuation of bargaining at this time is not going to produce a collective agreement.”

The union issued a statement saying the BCMEA “deliberately sabotaged the progress that had been made therefore we must question their motives and the appropriateness of the BCMEA bargaining committee to actually negotiate a collective bargaining agreement…We hope that the association is not hiding behind the threat of back to work legislation and binding arbitration to avoid engaging in bargaining with the union.”

On July 4, the union issued a new statement, saying the principal issue that is holding up getting a deal is contracting out of ILWU maintenance work by member employers of the BCMEA. “Our jurisdiction in maintenance has been aggressively eroded by member employers by using 3rd party contractors,” the union’s statement said. “This is not an issue of cost for the direct employers because they already pay for this work to be done by maintenance contracting companies. In fact, using ILWU skilled trades employees will be more cost effective and will result in a higher quality of work because of their industry experience and competency.”

BCMEA, said that the union has not supplied the labour needed. “In Vancouver, up to 25 percent of specific jobs were left unfilled… On average, of the trades work that the ILWU Canada is exclusively entitled to supply in Vancouver, 17 percent of jobs went unfilled last year. This lack of labour supply has immediate impacts on terminal productivity as regular maintenance of cargo-moving equipment goes unaddressed and delayed.

At a meeting with federal mediators, the ILWU bargaining committee suggested meeting directly with leaders of some of the BCMEA members.

For its part the BCMEA said it is ready to re-engage at a moment’s notice, assuming that ILWU Canada is prepared to put forward a reasonable proposal.

The Vancouver Fraser Port Authority reports 60 vessels offshore or at anchor waiting to berth at Port of Vancouver terminals as of July 6, 2023, at 1 pm. Not all 60 vessels offshore or at anchor are affected by current labour action: bulk grain vessels, cruise ships and coal vessels bound for Westshore are unaffected by current labour action. Two of the Port of Prince Rupert’s seven terminals are currently impacted by strike action – Fairview Container Terminal and Westview Wood Pellet Terminal. This affects two vessels within port jurisdiction that are currently at anchor, unable to discharge their cargoes. All other vessels are proceeding according to schedule.

The BCMEA estimated that the port shutdown has potentially disrupted $3.7 billion of cargo.

“Regrettably, this labour disruption has also damaged Canada’s reputation with our trading partners, including the United States and the Asia Pacific region,” the association said in a satement on July 5. “The Pacific Gateway is the linchpin of the nation’s supply chain, moving 25 percent of Canada’s total traded goods, and every day that passes without a deal reached, the Canadian economy – and Canadians – lose. What is clear now is that the safety and security of Canada’s supply chain is at imminent risk.”