B.C. port talks proceed; truckers also may walk

(Resource News International) — Dock and ship foremen at West Coast ports continue to hold off on striking as negotiations surrounding new collective agreements plod forward.

The British Columbia Maritime Employers Association (BCMEA) tabled its “comprehensive response” Friday to a Jan. 3 proposal by the International Longshoremen and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 514.

Greg Vurdela, vice-president of marketing and information services for BCMEA, said, “while progress was made, some key issues still remain outstanding.” Those issues will be discussed Thursday, when both sides are scheduled to meet again with federally-appointed mediators.

The threat of a strike at B.C.’s Lower Mainland, Vancouver Island and Prince Rupert ports has been hanging over many heads since April, when talks between BCMEA and the union began shortly after the workers’ old contracts expired.

Tensions rose a notch in December when both sides entered a 21-day “cooling off” period, at which time the union indicated it would consider striking beginning Jan. 2.

Since then, however, neither a strike nor lockout notice has been issued by either side and officials have indicated neither option is likely as long as progress is being made in the contract negotiations.

If Local 514 were to strike, it’s expected that more than 5,000 other ILWU members would add their support to the strike by joining the picket line.

Port truckers could also strike

Further cause for concern has come from news that 750 truckers who haul at the Port of Vancouver could also strike unless a new collective agreement is worked out with their employers. Their previous contract expired on Dec. 31.

Local 2006 of the Vancouver Container Truck Association/ Canadian Auto Workers (VCTA/CAW), which represents the predominantly owner-operator truckers, said it’s calling for stricter enforcement of pay rates established in 2005.

Also on the union’s agenda is a request for a moratorium on passes which allow drivers to enter the port.

According to Local 2006 president Paul Johal, the Vancouver Port Authority is currently only issuing port passes to company-owned vehicles, with “the express purpose of eliminating owner-operators.”

Reports say the union is also concerned that too many passes are being issued to new trucking companies, cutting into the work share of older ones.

Union members have agreed to hold a strike vote in January and establish a strike deadline by the end of the month unless a new collective agreement is reached.

Container traffic threatened

A strike by either VCTA/CAW or ILWU, or a lockout by the employers would disrupt container traffic at some of Canada’s busiest international gateways. The impact would have serious implications for exporters of specialty crops, which move by container. Bulk grain movement, meanwhile, would likely continue in the event of a strike.

Concerns about a major port disruption have been compounded by a decision in December by Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean to temporarily suspend Parliament. With the House of Commons only scheduled to re-open Jan. 27, striking union members could not be legislated back to work until then.

In the meantime, trade sources say vessels have already been diverted away from Canada’s West Coast to alternate and competing ports.

Capt. Stephen Brown, president of the Chamber of Shipping of British Columbia, said, “We are proud of B.C.’s Pacific Gateway that our governments, businesses and workers have built together but we are deeply concerned that a shutdown during this economically uncertain time will jeopardize that success.”

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