Harper criticizes shipment delays in Vancouver labour dispute

Ottawa | Reuters –– Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Wednesday it was unacceptable for striking truck drivers to delay shipments at Canada’s largest port in Vancouver, but noted that it was up to the provincial government to deal with the conflict.

The labour dispute at the port, a gateway to fast-growing Asian markets, escalated this week just as Harper signed a free trade agreement with South Korea aimed at boosting Canadian exports to Asia. [Related story]

“This is obviously a big problem,” Harper told a business audience in Vancouver when asked to comment on the strike.

“As I understand it, unfortunately the labour disputes here are really under the jurisdiction of the provincial government, not ours, but we are concerned about this,” he said.

Unionized container truck drivers set up picket lines at the Vancouver port on Monday, joining hundreds of nonunion workers who walked off the job last month in a dispute over pay and services. [Related story]

The dispute has hurt exports of commodities like lumber and specialized grain products, and the import of consumer goods, which the port said would have an impact of about $885 million per week.

“It is not acceptable to have relatively small numbers of people blocking what is important trade for a range of British Columbian and Canadian businesses,” Harper said.

The federal government brought in a mediator last week to help with negotiations and to conduct a review on the long-running labour issues.

One shippers’ group, the Western Canadian Shippers’ Coalition, whose listed members handle resource-based products and include the Canadian Oilseed Processors Association and CWB, warned the truckers in a release Tuesday that all its members are now considering either changing from container to breakbulk shipping or taking their business to different ports.

“Some members have already signed deals to move cargo through Seattle and Montreal container terminals,” coalition chairman Ian May said in a release, noting such deals require a long-term volume commitment that would keep those shippers away from Vancouver for the near future.

Transport Minister Lisa Raitt said she was monitoring the situation closely and called on the British Columbia government to “take the necessary steps to address the situation.”

Raitt has not hesitated in the past to force strikers back to work when it is within the federal government’s power to do so. Last month, she was set to introduce back-to-work legislation to avert a strike by railroad conductors, which the parties ending up resolving on their own. [Related story]

Raitt previously pushed similar legislation to end strikes at Air Canada, Canadian Pacific Railway and Canada Post.

Harper said that as Canada’s trade with Asia grows, it needs to expand its infrastructure capacity to deal with increased shipment of goods.

“We continue to have challenges on the infrastructure side, particularly as we’re talking about shipping to Asia,” he said.

— Reporting for Reuters by Louise Egan in Ottawa. Includes files from AGCanada.com Network staff.


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