Strike vote underway for 7,000 terminal cargo movers in B.C., raising business concerns

Unionized longshore workers on the B.C. coast cast ballots on Friday, in the first of a two-day strike vote that could affect ports along the Pacific coast. And with a billion dollars worth of goods moving through the ports every day, businesses say a work stoppage could have devastating impacts on the economy. Aaron McArthur reports.

As the threat of a strike looms, some business people are urging the union representing more than 7,000 terminal cargo movers in B.C., and their employer, to reach a deal.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union Canada (ILWU) and B.C. Maritime Employers Association have been working to negotiate a new contract since February, their collective agreement having expired at the end of March.

On Monday, the union authorized a strike vote to take place Friday and Saturday.

Some $350 billion-worth of goods move through the ports of Vancouver and Prince Rupert alone, according to Bridgitte Anderson, president and CEO of the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade. She said B.C.’s ports are in state of recovery after the COVID-19 pandemic and back-to-back natural disasters, and a strike could disrupt the precarious progress that’s been made.

“Both from an import and export side, disruptions would cause mass problems for us as businesses and for consumers as well, and we have to realize that disruptions can also fuel inflation and also further cost pressures that will just trickle down to impact everyone,” she said Friday.

“We’re urging both sides in this dispute to come together and find a solution so we don’t end up in a situation where we’re seeing further inflation and cost pressures.”

Neither the ILWU Canada nor the B.C. Maritime Employers Association would comment on this story while negotiations are underway.

The two sides are currently in a cooling-off period until June 21, after the union filed a notice of dispute in March that required federally-mandated conciliation that ended on May 30.

Canadian law prevents either side from exercising their right to labour action for 21 days after the end of conciliation, and both the union and the employers association say job action can’t be conducted before June 21, leaving the earliest possible strike date of June 24.

The B.C. Maritime Employers Association represents 49 of the province’s private sector waterfront employers. According to its website, its members contribute $2.7 billion to the national GDP and handled roughly 16 per cent of Canada’s total traded goods worth $180 billion in 2020.

A statement on the website says it aims to reach a “fair and balanced deal” that ensures proper compensation and the competitiveness of B.C.’s ports.

Kari Yuers of Kryton International Inc., a manufacturer of waterproofing and durability products for concrete, called the possibility of a strike “very concerning,” noting the problematic concentration of business disruptions in the past three years.

“I think everybody’s had a taste of supply disruptions and the supply chain and the impact, the negative impact on the economy and inflation. I think people are very worried about this,” she told Global News.

“Certainly for our company, it’s it’s incredibly harmful. We’re in our 50th year and our customers come to rely on us to get them the materials they need. So it’s not okay to say, ‘Oh, well, we might not be able to supply you and we not we’re not sure when that will be.'”

A labour disruption would “absolutely” damage Kryton International’s reputation, Yuers added, and give an edge to its international competitors. About 80 per cent of the company’s sales are outside of North America, and Kryton primarily ships from Vancouver and Port Alberni.

She said many of Kryton’s customers work on strict project deadlines, and if the company can’t ship supplies on time, those projects could fall apart.

“We’ve had these strikes before and unfortunately, it usually takes many weeks before people start to recognize that it’s serious enough. We all have to get to the table. If I have an ask, it’s for them to get to the table sooner and to sort it out.”

Beacon Economics international trade adviser Jock O’Connell told The Canadian Press this week that the timing of a possible strike at B.C. ports coincides with ongoing labour strife at West Coast ports in the United States, as disputes between port officials and the Longshore union’s American counterpart disrupted terminal operations in places such as Oakland and Long Beach, both in California.

O’Connell said a combination of disruptions at B.C. and U.S. ports would seriously damage the West Coast’s role in global shipping, and exporters would look to ports on the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico as more reliable options.

Ultimately, neither side wins a protracted battle in either B.C. or the U.S. West Coast, he added.

“They’ve always had this ability to disrupt cargo flows, but the idea that we might see strike action on both sides of the border is simply unprecedented,” O’Connell said of the possible job action in B.C.

“This is seriously tarnishing the reputation of ports along the Pacific coast of North America as reliable gateways for international trade. If I’m a shipper and I have the discretion of moving goods through different ports of entry or exit, I’m more inclined to do so now than a year or two ago.”

— with files from The Canadian Press

© 2023 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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