Back-to-work legislation is usually a bad thing, because it interferes with the bargaining process between employers and employees. But the strike involving Port Metro Vancouver and the truckers who deliver and pick up containers at the port is so bewilderingly complex, and has dragged on so long, that the B.C. government’s bill requiring a 90-day “cooling-off period” is necessary and welcome. It provides an opportunity to restart negotiations.
A labour dispute is normally between an employer and its employees. But Port Metro Vancouver is not the employer of any of the truckers concerned and it consequently has no direct influence on how much they are paid. Eight different employers are involved in this dispute, and many of the truckers are independent, non-unionized members of the United Truckers Association of British Columbia.
If anything about all this is clear, it is that the dispute is severely hampering Canada’s ability to export across the Pacific to Asia. At one point, the loss to the Canadian economy was estimated to be $885-million a week. Port Metro Vancouver says that traffic has recovered to about 40 per cent of normal, but that is still a large drop. Sawmills have said they are considering layoffs. Exports from other industries are being hampered and delayed.
There is at least some consensus that the process of loading and unloading containers to the port is too time-consuming and that the port is congested. The truckers want to paid more for time spent waiting in a queue; the port wants to be open longer hours.
Port Metro Vancouver, which belongs to the federal government, issues licences to the truckers to use the port; to that extent, it has power over them, and it has threatened to suspend or not renew licences in response to the strike.
Though the Constitution places ports under federal jurisdiction, trucking is, like most businesses, a provincial matter. That is why the B.C. government, and not Ottawa, has been stuck with the thankless task of passing the back-to-work bill.
All parties need to use the coming months to find a way forward that is viable for all the interests that are affected – not just the front-line antagonists in the conflict. Vancouver’s port is a working port, and right now, it’s mostly not working.