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B.C. port strike enters day five, with talks deadlocked over maintenance

More than 7,000 workers at 30 ports across B.C. have been on strike since Saturday
Striking International Longshore and Warehouse Union Canada workers picket at a port entrance in Vancouver, B.C., Tuesday, July 4, 2023. Talks between maritime employers and the union representing British Columbia port workers remain deadlocked over maintenance issues as a strike by the workers enters its fifth day. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Talks between maritime employers and the union representing British Columbia port workers remain deadlocked over maintenance issues as a strike by the workers enters its fifth day.

The union blamed the employers association for failing to agree on “one sentence” in a maintenance deal, while the association said the union was trying to “aggressively expand” control over work it was already unable to fulfil.

More than 7,000 workers at 30 ports across B.C. have been on strike since Saturday morning, leading business organizations as well as officials in both Alberta and Saskatchewan to call on Ottawa to step in.

In a statement issued Tuesday, a day after talks stalled, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Canada said its jurisdiction over maintenance has been eroded by employers in the BC Maritime Employers Association who were using contractors.

“The key issue that is holding up getting a deal is contracting out of ILWU maintenance work by member employers of the BCMEA and the refusal of the association and its member companies to agree on a regular maintenance document that is all but complete — except for one sentence.”

The employers association, meanwhile, said it had hoped Monday’s pause “would act as a reset in negotiations” but “regrettably” the union had shown no willingness to modify its position.

“ILWU Canada is attempting to aggressively expand their scope and redefine regular maintenance work far beyond what is set out in the industry-wide agreement, which has been legally well established for decades,” it said Tuesday.

It said the union exclusively supplies maintenance labour under the current collective agreement but “it has been consistently unable to fulfil the trades work they have jurisdiction over.”

The union has previously said contracting out, port automation and the cost of living are key issues in the dispute.

Devin Dreeshen, Alberta’s minister of transportation and economic corridors, said he wants the federal government to recall Parliament to consider back-to-work legislation to end the strike.

Dreeshen said he’s frustrated the strike has continued, particularly because Ottawa used legislation in 2021 to end a walkout by Port of Montreal dock workers after one day.

“They used Parliament to resolve it. And that same amount of urgency is something that we’re hoping that the federal government has in this case as well,” he said.

Dreeshen said Tuesday that Alberta has asked federal Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan for daily updates on negotiations between the BC Maritime Employers Association and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Canada.

“It’s vitally important that the supply chain, this being a main critical component of it, remains open,” he said.

O’Regan said Tuesday that federal mediators continue to support both sides in their negotiations.

“We encourage both parties to immediately return to the bargaining table and remain there until a deal is reached,” he said on Twitter.

“Collective bargaining is hard work but it’s how the best, most resilient deals are made.”

In a separate statement responding to calls for back-to-work legislation, O’Regan’s office said that it’s “not looking past the bargaining table, because the best deals are made at the table.”

Hartley Witten, a spokesman for the minister’s office, said the primary difference between the situation in Montreal and the current strike is that there was an eight-month truce between the parties in Montreal before the strike.

“Here we had federal mediators that were involved for a number of months before, but I think to suggest there was the same sort of lead-up and we were caught flat-footed, is incorrect.”

He said every collective bargaining situation has unique circumstances and B.C.’s case involves significantly more ports than the single location in Montreal.

Dreeshen said western ports, particularly the Port of Vancouver, are “incredibly important” to Alberta’s economy. He said 80 per cent of exports that travel through the Port of Vancouver comes from the Prairies.

Jeremy Harrison, Saskatchewan’s minister of trade and export development, said Tuesday that shippers in that province have warned the strike is already slowing down the flow of goods, and the current work stoppage will have long-lasting effects on the supply chain.

“It may take weeks or even months to fully recover from these disruptions. Strain on the supply chain leads to additional costs that end up being passed along to consumers, including those in Saskatchewan,” he said.

“We encourage the government of Canada to do everything within its power to facilitate a resolution in the best interests of all Canadians.”

Dreeshen said Alberta has yet to see shortages of perishable goods on grocery shelves but that could come “very soon.”

Groups representing Canadian businesses also want the federal government to intervene, with one organization calling for legal changes that would discourage future disruptions.

On Tuesday, Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters said designating ports and rail lines as essential infrastructure and limiting when and where labour and other disruptions can occur would provide manufacturers the stability they need.

“A strike of this magnitude not only disrupts the Canadian economy but damages our global trading reputation, hurts already fragile supply chains, and puts jobs at risk,” the group said in a statement.

“Given that the federal government understands what is at stake, (Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters) urges them to intervene now to reassure manufacturers that they will not bear the brunt of a labour dispute that is beyond their control.”

The group, which says its members account for about 82 per cent of total manufacturing production and 90 per cent of Canada’s exports, estimates that the movement of $500 million worth of goods is being disrupted every day.

The Greater Vancouver Board of Trade is meanwhile asking Ottawa to “use every tool at its disposal” to ensure a deal is struck to resume activity at the city’s port, including back-to-work legislation, if necessary.

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