Labour minister asks mediator for terms to end B.C. port strike

Labour minister asks mediator for terms to end B.C. port strike
Striking port workers from the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Canada gather at Jack Poole Plaza while attending a rally in Vancouver, on Sunday, July 9, 2023.

Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan has given a federal mediator 24 hours to send him recommended terms to end the British Columbia port strike that has snarled cargo in about 30 ports and spurred fears of supply chain chaos across Canada.

O’Regan said in a statement issued late Tuesday that the gap between the positions of employers and the port workers union in the 11-day-old strike is “not sufficient to justify a continued work stoppage.”

He said that once he has received the terms from the mediator, he will forward them to both sides and they will have another 24 hours to decide whether to ratify the principles of the deal.

About 7,400 members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Canada have been on strike since July 1, halting cargo in and out of ports in B.C., including Canada’s largest, the Port of Vancouver.

The workers say they’re fighting for protections against contracting out and automation, as well as pushing for higher wages.

The strike is starting to hit business operations in Canada.

Nutrien Ltd., for example, said Tuesday it has curtailed production at its Cory potash mine in Saskatchewan due to the strike.

The fertilizer producer said the strike has meant the loss of export capacity through Canpotex’s Neptune terminal. If the work stoppage continues, Nutrien warned it could affect production at its other potash mines in Saskatchewan.

O’Regan said a good deal is “within reach” for both the union and the BC Maritime Employers Association.

He said it was in the interests of all sides that an agreement is reached as soon as possible.

“The scale of this disruption shows how important the relationship between the BCMEA and the ILWU is to our national interest,” O’Regan said in the statement shared on Twitter.

“We cannot allow this work stoppage to persist and risk further damage to the relationship between these parties.”

Speaking at a meeting of Canada’s premiers in Winnipeg, B.C. Premier David Eby said earlier Tuesday that the group is unified in wanting the strike resolved as quickly as possible.

“It has knock-on impacts on cost of living for people across the country as goods get more expensive because imports are not available and it’s really the worst time for that,” he said.

“We also know in British Columbia, where the port is, that port workers have seen increasing costs just like everybody else.”

Eby said workers need to be treated with respect.

“And what we want is a long-term deal that’s going to last and that’s going to prevent disruptions like this from happening in the future. And those kinds of deals are reached at the bargaining table.”

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith has been among those pushing Ottawa to implement back-to-work legislation to end the strike.

Smith said it was going to have a huge impact on supply chains.

“We’re hearing that our producers are having to shut down and roll back their production. I’m hearing that across the board, whether it’s in agriculture, whether it’s in oil.”

Ontario Premier Doug Ford estimated the strike was costing his province $160 million a day. He said he wanted the federal government to “put an end to this.”

“We need to get moving. I’m all for supporting the front-line workers, but you can’t hold the whole country hostage,” he said.

He said he wanted a fair deal for the workers, taxpayers and consumers. “We need to make sure this strike is over, work collaboratively together and let’s start getting these goods flowing right across our country.”

Survey results released Tuesday by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business found 53 per cent of business owners believe the strike will affect their operations. Three-quarters of businesses are also calling on the federal government to pass back-to-work legislation to end the strike quickly.

Business owners expressed concerns about critical shipments stuck at the port and delays in deliveries needed to complete projects on time.

“Supply chains have just started to recover from the disruptions caused by the pandemic, so many businesses will feel this latest setback extra hard,” said CFIB president Dan Kelly in a press release.

“We’re hearing from members across the country who are worried about missing critical sales, delayed production or orders or an inability to get their products to export markets because of the strike. The federal government must step in and get shipments moving again as quickly as possible.”

But those claiming longshore workers “are greedy and resistant to change” while advocating for back-to-work legislation have it “exactly backwards,” according to the author of a new report that supports the argument put forth by workers that labour is not the source of rising costs in the industry.

The study by economist Jim Stanford, director of Vancouver’s Centre for Future Work, said hourly wages for longshore workers are similar to wages for other skilled industrial jobs.

But under the current dispatch system, longshore workers have insecure working schedules and must wait several years to qualify for benefits.

Stanford said that in recent years, wages in the sector lagged behind B.C.’s rising cost of living, with the real purchasing power of longshore wages falling 2.5 per cent since 2017.

“Clearly, labour is not the source of rising costs in marine shipping, and the resulting inflation,” said Stanford, whose study was commissioned by the ILWU Canada.

The economist noted the six biggest global shipping lines control 70 per cent of world shipping, giving them influence over prices and practices. He said public financial information is available for five of those companies, which made more than $100 billion in profit last year.

“The greed of shippers and terminal operators, who took advantage of an economic and health emergency to fatten their bottom lines, is the source of the problem,” he concluded in his study.

“It is their resistance to change — in particular, opposing more stable and efficient ways to support training, skills and stability in longshore work — that is the only barrier to a quick settlement.”

O’Regan said in his statement that both sides “have worked long and hard to negotiate a deal.”

“It is in the interest of everyone — the employer, the union, and all Canadians — that they agree to that deal as soon as possible,” he said.

Sammy Hudes, The Canadian Press

— With files from Dirk Meissner, Ashley Joannou, Allison Jones and Colette Derworiz

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 11, 2023.

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