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Possible strike looms over West Coast ports

(Resource News International) — Workers at Canada’s West Coast ports have threatened to ring in the new year with a strike that could bring activity at the country’s busiest ports grinding to a halt.

According to reports, workers at ports in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland, Vancouver Island and Prince Rupert have threatened to strike beginning Jan. 2 unless the British Columbia Maritime Employers Association (BCMEA) and International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU Local 514) can agree on a new labour contract.

The BCMEA represents companies involved in waterfront operations on the West Coast, including providing labour relations for its members.

Reports say 425 ship and dock foremen from ILWU Local 514 have been working without a contract since spring 2007. However, other port workers who signed contracts earlier in the year could join the strike by Local 514, meaning that a total of 5,000 workers could be affected.

Two federal mediators have been working for some to hammer out a new contract and prevent a strike. According to reports, language surrounding pension payments and working conditions are the main sticking points between the parties.

“Significant diminishing”

According to a statement Saturday on the BCMEA’s website, talks were held Friday and Saturday between the association and union “with the assistance of two federally appointed mediators” and are next scheduled for Dec. 29.

BCMEA CEO Andy Smith was quoted Friday as saying talks were not going well. And if a new contract is not signed by this weekend, when cargo bound for the West Coast starts loading in far eastern ports, it’s feared international shipping lines will begin sending Vancouver-bound shipments elsewhere.

“The significant Canadian and American shippers are saying, ‘If you don’t have a deal we’re going to have to start to divert now’,” Smith was quoted as saying. “So even if a deal is made between now and (Jan. 2), there will be a significant diminishing of business hitting the port.”

Lach Coburn, West Coast manager for Cargill Ltd., noted grain shipments would not be disrupted in the event of a strike as they are protected by federal law.

However, movement of all other commodities at the ports would grind to a halt. That would likely include shipments of specialty and pulse crops, which usually move by containers and are not covered by the provision that allows for continued movement of bulk grain vessels.

Gerald Donkersgoed of Finora Inc., a major pulse and grain exporter based at Surrey, B.C., said no one needs a disruption in the Canadian flow of goods when the trade is already struggling to make sales.

As well, the temporary suspension of Parliament means that in the event of a strike, workers could not be federally legislated back to work until the beginning of February, as Parliament is only set to resume Jan. 27.

— With files by Manitoba Co-operator staff

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