The temperature is again rising above a simmer at Port of Vancouver container terminals as truck companies and truckers are demanding improvements to the agreement that ended a crippling strike in 2014.
At press time, union and non-union truckers had planned an “extraordinary” meeting April 2 to discuss a range of hot-button issues, including enforcement of pay rates negotiated in 2014’s joint action plan. Meetings between the two organizations are uncommon: Unifor and the United Truckers Association last met “a year or two” ago, said Gavin McGarrigle, Unifor’s B.C. director.
“Things are not good,” said McGarrigle of the current level of unrest among his membership.
The BC Trucking Association (BCTA), representing truck companies and employers, has formally written the federal and provincial governments asking for a “comprehensive review” of the joint action plan after only two years in place. Among the association’s chief concerns is the “monopolistic” power container terminals wield over trucking companies, said Louise Yako, BCTA’s president and CEO. “If there’s a dispute, there’s really no way to resolve it, except the marine container terminal gets to decide since they have the ultimate authority of allowing or not allowing access.”
Port congestion, unpaid wait times, poor wages and allegations of undercutting were key factors leading to the March 2014 container truckers’ strike. The disruption to container cargo movement brought the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority (VFPA), the federal and provincial governments and trucking representatives to the table to quickly hammer out the 14-point plan.
To alleviate congestion, the plan reduced the number of truckers licensed to access port terminals to 1,720 from 2,000, doubled terminal hours with the introduction of night shifts and outfitted all trucks with GPS to support a mandatory trucker appointment system. Wage complaints were addressed by minimum pay rates, a tiered fee paid by terminals if truck transactions exceed 90 minutes and the establishment of a provincial container trucking commissioner to enforce pay-rate rules.
Operationally, the plan has had a positive impact. The average truck turn time – how fast a truck can load/unload a container and leave a terminal – dropped from an hour-plus pre-strike to 44 minutes at the end of 2014. It was shaved even further to approximately 41 minutes in 2016, said Peter Xotta, VFPA’s vice-president of planning and operations.
“Those numbers are as good as it gets in North America in terms of truck turnaround times within the intermodal complex.”
The joint action plan was a performance catalyst for Global Container Terminals (GCT), which operates Vanterm and Deltaport in the Port of Vancouver and container terminals in New York and New Jersey.
“Prior to the 14-point plan, total turn times were well below industry norms for North America,” said Louanne Wong, GCT’s manager of market initiatives and development, in an email response. “[At present], the turn times in our Vancouver terminals are superior to those at every other major port in North America.”
However, McGarrigle points out the performance statistics for the enforcement of pay rates are far from glowing. As of March 16, the Office of the BC Container Trucking Commissioner reports that 61 audits have been completed or are underway resulting in $1.7 million returned, without interest, to container truckers.
McGarrigle estimates that a third of licensed trucking companies servicing the port are not in compliance.
“When you’ve got one out of every three companies being nailed with not following the clear provisions of the law, that’s indicative the trucking company owners just haven’t got the message yet,” said McGarrigle.
He added that some audits have taken 18 months to two years for a decision. The commissioner’s office recently announced it is expanding staffing by training Ministry of Finance auditors to help pick up some of the slack.
McGarrigle said that total cumulative penalties levied by the commissioner to date are approximately $60,000. The commissioner’s office confirmed it has not penalized a non-compliant company more than $10,000, even though it has the authority to order fines up to $500,000 or suspend companies altogether.
Rather than “little slaps on the wrist,” McGarrigle said, the commissioner could make a statement to the industry by levying more painful penalties.
Michael Crawford, deputy container trucking commissioner, is noncommittal.
“I think we try to set the fines at a level that is appropriate to whatever the particular issue is that are raised in the decisions. I think that we maintain the discretion to adjust those upward as necessary,” said Crawford, who declined a request to grade the industry’s overall pay-rate compliance to date.
Yako maintained that trucking companies are also subjugated and exploited. The appointment systems, she said, are “completely one-sided,” serving only the interests of marine container terminals.
Yako pointed out trucking companies can be charged for unmet reservations because of delays caused by a terminal at a previous stop. She wants trucking companies to have greater access to appointment system data. Yako also wants a binding dispute resolution mechanism similar to that afforded shippers using rail under the common carrier obligations of the Canada Transportation Act.
“The government put it in place essentially because the railways were in such a powerful position, and it’s no different with the marine container terminals,” said Yako. “They are in an almost monopolistic situation. There are no performance standards in place for the servicing of trucks.”
In early 2015, both Unifor and the United Truckers Association threatened a strike unless the negotiated pay rates were enforced, spurring meetings with federal and provincial transportation ministers. Will it take a strike to get everyone back to the table?
Although he blames the BCTA for its inability to “corral their own membership,” McGarrigle is open to a meeting.
“Of course, we would sit down with government stakeholders and anyone involved to try to make things better,” said McGarrigle. “If [BCTA] get their act together and we can sit down with government post-election – whatever government it is – there definitely needs to be more money for enforcement and tougher penalties. … There are lots of things to work on, but if the starting point is, ‘Let’s see if we can erase the joint action plan,’ that’s not where we’re coming from.”
Xotta is also sensitive to the need to keep temperatures from boiling over.
“I think that there will always be a degree of political sensitivity to this community and the issues. Certainly the port is anxious to make sure we don’t have a repeat event,” said Xotta. “So, in principle, I don’t disagree with [BCTA’s] suggestion that at some interval we should as a group stand back from this and say, ‘Where are we now?’”
Yako said it’s unrealistic to assume stakeholders could consider all scenarios and possible consequences in quickly hammering out the joint action plan.
“We just think it’s due diligence after three years to look at it and say, ‘OK, did we accomplish what we intended to and is there a way to do this better?’”