A potentially disruptive labour dispute for the B.C. and Canadian economy looms.
Thousands of longshore workers in British Columbia and the BC Maritime Employers Association can either strike or lock out workers at any time now with 72-hour-notice, which would have far-reaching implications.
Negotiators representing each side continue to meet with the help of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, a government body offering dispute resolution to federally regulated employees in key sectors of the economy.
And ports along B.C.’s coast certainly qualify as key sectors.
The Port of Vancouver is Canada’s largest, home to 29 terminals operating in 16 municipalities across Metro Vancouver. According to the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority, the responsible federal agency, the port handles $1 of every $3 of Canada’s trade outside of North America. As a gate to 170 countries, the port sustains 115,300 jobs, $7 billion in wages and $11.9 billion in GDP across Canada.
The Port of Prince Rupert in northern British Columbia — nominally Canada’s third-largest port behind the Port of Montreal — would also be impacted.
The BC Maritime Employers Association, which represents 49 private sector waterfront employers, said in a statement that discussions continue.
“The BCMEA remains committed to bargaining in good faith and seeking a fair and balanced deal that recognizes the expertise of the waterfront workforce, while ensuring West Coast ports remain competitive, resilient and affordable for all Canadians.”
Black Press Media reached out to ILWU-Canada president Rob Ashton for comment, but did not receive a reply by deadline.
On June 12, 99.24 per cent of the more than 7,200 dockworkers represented by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union voted in favour of a strike, if necessary.
The previous agreement ended March 31 after bargaining started in early February. Both sides had reached that agreement in May 2019 after lengthy discussions, a short lockout, and threats of a full-blown strike.
The question of labour peace along B.C.’s coast has resonated far beyond local shores.
The union’s strike vote drew international coverage in the U.S., partly because Vancouver is the third-largest port in North America as measured by tonnage capacity and partly because of labour negotiations at 29 U.S. ports from Washington State to California.
While those have since concluded with a tentative agreement, 22,000 workers must still ratify it.
Negotiations in B.C. are unfolding against the backdrop of a slowing economy and questions about local port efficiency.
An index produced by the World Bank and S&P Global Market Intelligence ranked the Port of Vancouver second-to-last among 348 container ports based on vessel wait times. Delays have in turn caused issues near the shores of Vancouver Island.
Premier David Eby has been keeping an eye on the situation.
“I feel a huge amount of urgency for all parties involved, for the port authority, for the workers to be sitting at the table, to be reaching a deal together,” Eby said Thursday (June 22) at an unrelated event.
“We know the best deals are reached at the table and certainly I’m glad that the federal government is looking to be involved and to facilitate getting that agreement at the table.”
It’s important for B.C. ports to be as efficient and effective as possible to ensure lower prices for British Columbians and get exports to global markets, he added.
Greater Vancouver Board of Trade CEO Bridgitte Anderson warned of supply chain issues.
“The potential for heightened supply chain challenges as a result of labour negotiations with port workers in B.C. risks exacerbating the disruptions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, heat domes, and flooding,” Anderson said.
“Businesses need stable supply chains to reach their full potential, particularly for those looking to reach international markets.”