Port employer, dock workers back at the bargaining table

BC Maritime Employers Association and International Longshore and Warehouse Union Canada representatives in talks to avert May 30 lockout

Rob Kruyt

The union and employers association serving Canada’s West Coast ports returned to bargaining Wednesday in hopes of averting a prolonged port shutdown.

“We are hopeful we can reach an agreement,” BC Maritime Employers Association chairman Jeff Scott said Wednesday. “I can’t get into details.”

The BCMEA said May 28 it would lock out longshoremen in B.C. ports effective Thursday, May 30.

The notice came just two days after the start of what the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Canada (ILWU) called limited job action, which includes a ban on overtime.

Shippers and academics warned Wednesday that a prolonged dispute at ports up and down the coast and on Vancouver Island would severely disrupt supply chains, strangle shipping capacity, back up goods and damage the national economy.

ILWU was ready for a full walkout at 7 a.m. Monday, but instead instituted a ban on overtime and other actions without picket lines at GCT Global Container Terminals’ Vanterm and GCT Deltaport facilities in the Vancouver area.

ILWU president Rob Ashton’s voicemail was full, and he could not be contacted.

Preserving jobs in the face of port automation and site safety are among concerns he has raised.

Those concerns are shared by longshore unions in the United States. In a May 29 press release, the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) said it stands in solidarity with ILWU Canada in “opposing automation that robs job opportunities from hard-working longshore workers while companies enjoy record profits."

In September 2018, the ILA ratified an agreement with the United States Maritime Alliance. The six-year contract helps ensure labour and port service stability at East Coast U.S. and Gulf of Mexico ports until 2024.

Shipping companies have complained that labour costs are too high in the ports.

Both Scott and Port of Prince Rupert President Shaun Stevenson downplayed concerns about automation.

“We feel the investment in automation secures existing jobs,” Scott said.

Stevenson said Prince Rupert currently has no automation but may need to examine the option down the road, “but not as a replacement for workers.”

A lockout would affect all ports in Canada’s Asia Pacific Gateway – including the private, northern facility in Stewart. It would not include cruise ship operations or employees required to service grain vessels.

Port Metro Vancouver said that, based on 2018 cargo volumes and average 2018 commodity prices, the estimated cargo value that would be affected by a strike is $615 million per day.