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Workers to rally on Day 6 of B.C. port strike, as employer seeks binding arbitration

The president of the union representing striking British Columbia port workers says employers are waiting for the federal government to do their “dirty work,” instead of negotiating an end to the workers’ six-day strike.

Officials with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Canada also say the association representing port employers is more interested in a “dirty tricks campaign,” than resuming talks that stalled on Monday.

The B.C. Maritime Employers Association (BCMEU) has been calling for binding arbitration to end the strike involving about 7,400 workers at more than 30 ports.

Rob Ashton, president of the union, told hundreds of workers at a solidarity rally in Vancouver Thursday that “the employer walked away from the table three times.”

He says the employers don’t want to talk and aren’t treating workers with respect.

“They don’t want to negotiate with us. They don’t want to do the right thing for the workers of the longshore division that put their lives on the line during the COVID pandemic,” Ashton told Thursday’s rally.

“They’re trying to wait for the government to do their dirty work because they don’t want to treat us with respect.”

Ashton said in a statement earlier Thursday that the employers association has released misinformation and details exaggerating the incomes of dock workers.

In a statement to CBC News, the BCMEA called the allegations “baseless, without merit and unhelpful in reaching an agreement.”

The association, which bargains on behalf of employers operating out of more than 30 ports, stepped away from talks on Monday and has said binding arbitration could quickly resolve the job action.

The union workers have been off the job since Canada Day to back demands for improved wages and provisions against contracting out and automation.

 “Basically, this is over job security,” ILWU first vice-president Pat Bolen said at a Thursday rally in Prince Rupert, B.C.

“This is over us wanting to do our job in the most efficient manner possible. It’s not an unreasonable request. Somebody’s got to do the work, let it be us and let us stay strong.”

Federal Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan is instead urging the two sides to make use of available mediators and resume negotiations.

O’Regan met with his B.C. counterpart, Labour Minister Harry Bains, on Wednesday to discuss the strike, which has idled Canada’s busiest port, in Vancouver, as well as the third busiest port, in Prince Rupert.

CP Rail, now known as CPKC Ltd., issued temporary embargoes on rail traffic to the Port of Vancouver this week, while officials in Alberta and Saskatchewan have joined with business organizations in B.C. and across Canada calling for federal legislation to end the job action.

“Negotiations are still paused, however, the BCMEA remains ready to re-engage at a moment’s notice, assuming ILWU Canada is prepared to present a reasonable proposal,” the association said in an email Wednesday.

The strike has potentially disrupted $3.7 billion of cargo, it said.

The Port of Vancouver in Vancouver, British Columbia on Wednesday, July 5, 2023.
Cranes at the Port of Vancouver pictured on Wednesday. The organization that represents employers at roughly 30 B.C. ports is calling for binding arbitration to end the strike by more than 7,000 members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

“Automotive parts, refrigerated food, fertilizer, critical minerals and goods are not reaching Canadians or our trading partners abroad,” said the association.

Data show the Port of Vancouver handles approximately 142 million tonnes of cargo annually while nearly 25 million tonnes of goods moved through Prince Rupert in 2022.

Strike could cost $250M per week, experts say

The strike could cost companies hundreds of millions of dollars per week, experts and business groups say, with smaller operators and consumers feeling the biggest pinch.

Industry organizations say the job action will back up shipments, deplete inventories and boost prices on goods in shorter supply.

The economic toll will amount to at least $250 million per week, said Werner Antweiler, chair in international trade policy at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business.

“The first week or two, businesses are usually able to bridge quite fine. It gets increasingly worse after that, as some businesses will run out of inventory and cannot replenish it easily,” he said.

Companies face the choice of riding out the strike by drawing on existing stock and holding on to exports that cannot be shipped — resulting in lost sales and storage costs, respectively — or finding alternative routes for their products, including through already stretched ports in the United States.

“Even if some businesses are rerouting through this channel, it will be more expensive. It will take longer because now things will be starting to queue and it will have spillover effects on the entire system,” Antweiler said.

Small- and medium-sized businesses will be hurt most, since they have fewer resources and less leverage to lean on, said Dennis Darby, who heads the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters trade group.

“Companies don’t run huge inventories, as we learned during the pandemic,” Darby said, adding some will be able to hold out for just a few days.

“They may have contracts with their customers and they don’t have the ability to pass on [cost] increases,” he added. But for those that can, “it just adds to the potential inflationary effect.”

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