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Renewed B.C. port strike action leads to speculation about federal reaction

‘We have respected the collective bargaining process, but we need our ports operating’: ministers
A transport truck carries cargo containers from the Centerm Container Terminal at port in Vancouver, on Friday, July 14, 2023. British Columbia port workers are back off the job after a tentative agreement was between the employers association and the workers union was rejected. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

British Columbia’s ports are facing an uncertain future after the longshore workers union rejected a tentative mediated deal and resumed strike action that had been put to a temporary halt only last week.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union Canada says in Tuesday’s decision to go back to picket lines that “employers have not addressed the cost of living issues” faced by workers in the last few years. Its leadership caucus chose to reject the tentative agreement because it did not believe the deal can protect jobs “now or into the future.”

The union representing about 7,400 workers who were previously on strike from July 1 to 13 says its priority has always been to protect its jurisdiction, and that position “has not changed.”

The BC Maritime Employers Association said the union rejected the deal without sending it to a full membership vote.

The employers organization also said the rejected deal was “fair and comprehensive,” with hikes in wages and benefits above the 10 per cent increases workers had received over the past three years.

However, union president Rob Ashton said the four-year agreement was “far too long” given the uncertainties in the industry and the economy overall.

University of British Columbia professor emeritus Mark Thompson says the situation is now in “uncharted territory” because the strike is unusually long for Vancouver.

Thompson says the federal government has been very reluctant to enact back-to-work legislation in labour disputes, but strikes disrupting the Port of Vancouver — Canada’s largest — have not lasted more than two weeks since at least the 1980s.

The renewed ILWU strike means more than 30 port terminals and other sites across the province are shut down again for an indeterminate time.

The tentative four-year deal that was rejected by the union’s caucus had been proposed by a federal mediator at the instruction of Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan.

A late-night joint statement was released by O’Regan, and Transport Minister Omar Alghabra, confirming the employers’ association agreed to the terms of the deal, but the workers’ union leadership decided not to recommend ratification of the terms to its members.

The pair also expressed disappointment, saying that the mediated deal ending the work stoppage was the result of a constructive and substantive collective bargaining process.

The ministers’ joint statement also seems to hint at a possible move to introduce back-to-work legislation, stating, “We have been patient. We have respected the collective bargaining process. But we need our ports operating.”

B.C. Chamber of Commerce President Fiona Famulak said she was “profoundly disappointed” with the resumption of the strike and called a longer-term port shutdown “absolutely untenable.”

Greater Vancouver Board of Trade President and CEO Bridgitte Anderson said the group is restarting its Port Shutdown Calculator, which estimated that almost $10 billion in traded goods were affected during the initial strike action from July 1 to July 13.

The 13-day strike that ended last Thursday involved about 7,400 port workers at more than 30 port terminals and other sites across the province.

The strike froze billions of dollars worth of cargo from moving in and out of harbours, including at Canada’s busiest port in Vancouver.

Premiers in Western Canada said last week at a conference in Winnipeg that a prolonged disruption at B.C. ports would not only harm Canadians in the short-term through disrupting supply chains, but damage Canada’s reputation as a global business partner over the longer term.

In response to the strike’s resumption, Alberta Premier Danielle Smith tweeted that “the federal government must reconvene Parliament and legislate these workers return to work.”

Meanwhile, federal NDP transport critic Taylor Bachrach said in a statement that while the strike resumption was a setback, it is within a union’s bargaining rights to reject an agreement, and negotiations should continue without the threat of a legislated end to the dispute.

“We are also renewing our call for the federal government to support the collective bargaining process, rather than resorting to the sort of back-to-work legislation that Liberal and Conservative governments have imposed far too often,” Bachrach said.

Famulak said the federal government needs to “use every single tool in their tool box” to end the conflict.

“And if that means that it needs to be legislated back to work, then that’s what it means.”

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