Port union warns Ottawa to ‘stay out of our business,’ as strike talks fail to reach a deal

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Negotiators trying to end a strike by more than 7,000 port workers in BC failed to reach a deal Sunday as the union representing striking workers warned Ottawa to refrain from interfering.

Port workers across BC walked off the job Saturday morning in a wide-ranging job action that could impact worldwide shipping and the Canadian economy.

On Sunday afternoon, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) warned Ottawa against contemplating back-to-work legislation or imposing a contract, saying it would shatter “labor peace” in the province.

The strike affected about 7,400 terminal cargo loaders and 49 of the province’s waterfront employers at more than 30 BC ports including Canada’s busiest, Vancouver.

The union accused their employer, the BC Maritime Employers Association, of pushing for Ottawa to impose a deal, a move federal Labor Minister Seamus O’Regain said he was not contemplating.

“Labor peace in this industry comes from government staying out of the business between a union and their employers,” ILWU Canada president Rob Ashton told reporters in Vancouver. “The federal government must stay out of our business.”

A man in a cap with blue shirt speaks surrounded by other men wearing ILWU union shirts.
International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Canada’s president, Rob Ashton, speaks to reporters after two days of strike negotiations with maritime employers on Sunday in Vancouver (CBC)

O’Regan was in Vancouver throughout the weekend, saying he planned to remain during the talks. But in a statement his spokesperson said the bargaining table is where such disputes must be resolved.

According to the BC Maritime Employers Association (BCMEA)’s website, its members contribute $2.7 billion to the national GDP.

By Sunday evening, both sides failed to reach an agreement after two gruelling days in bargaining. One of their sessions was 33 hours long, according to the BCMEA.

“This labor disruption has shut down operations at the vast majority of BC’s marine terminals for five consecutive work shifts, damaging supply chains across the country and immediately impacting Canadians and businesses,” the association wrote in a statement.

The association did not address the allegations it wanted a government-imposed deal, but said it had so far made nine proposals to advance talks this weekend.

“We are and have been since day one of negotiations committed to reaching a fair and balanced deal,” it said.

‘We can’t let this drag on’

Meanwhile, business organizations, such as the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, have called on the federal government to impose back-to-work legislation to end the labor disruption.

A spokesperson said the strike could cost the economy up to $5.5 billion per week for workers who are off the job.

“We can’t let this drag on,” said Matthew Holmes, a senior vice president with the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, on Sunday. “We need the government to intervene, and we need them to intervene quickly… and force back-to-work legislation if that’s required.”

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Thousands of BC port workers on strike

Roughly 7,400 BC port workers went on strike over the weekend, sparking immediate concern about the impact on the supply chain and whether the federal government should step in to avoid major disruptions.

‘A fair and balanced deal’

However, O’Regan said only bargaining between parties at the negotiating table will end the crisis.

O’Regan said on Twitter on Sunday that “the best deals for both parties” were reached at the table, and that federal mediators were assisting during the talks.

Contracting out, port automation and cost of living are key issues behind the union’s job action, according to the ILWU.

The job action has gained support from others in the labor movement. The Canadian Labor Congress said in a tweet Saturday “it stands in solidarity with the ILWU Canada in their fight to protect union jobs and secure a strong collective agreement.” And the BC Federation of Labor also stated its support on Twitter.

A large cargo loading crane lifts shipping containers off a ship.
Massive container cranes help load a cargo ship at the Port of Vancouver in August 2020. The strike affected about 7,400 terminal cargo loaders and 49 of the province’s waterfront employers at more than 30 BC ports. (Yvette Brend/CBC)

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