The strike by B.C. port workers is sending ripples across the Canadian economy as everyone from Saskatchewan potash exporters to Ontario importers of industrial parts feels the impact of the walkout that enters its 10th day on Monday.
Employers estimate that up to $775-million a day in trade has been disrupted during the strike by 7,400 dock and warehouse workers across British Columbia, totalling $7-billion in cargo affected as of Sunday night.
The disruption to the supply chain, including trains and trucks, has halted the flow of a wide range of products such as imports of consumer goods and exports of raw materials. Potash and sulphur are among the commodities suspended from being loaded into the cargo holds of ships that would be destined for markets overseas.
Wellmaster Pipe and Supply Inc., a family-owned business in Tillsonburg, Ont., has a variety of imported industrial parts stuck in limbo inside 10 reusable steel containers at the Port of Vancouver and aboard ships that normally would have docked on the West Coast by now.
With nearly 50 employees, Wellmaster plans to reduce capital spending and tighten its belt to avoid layoffs at the manufacturer, whose customers include greenhouses, as well as the heating and refrigeration industry.
“There aren’t any issues that are worth doing the extent of damage that is being done to the Canadian economy. It will reverberate through the economy for months,” Wellmaster chief executive officer James White said in an interview from Tillsonburg. “The longer-term impact goes into Canada’s reputation as a reliable trading partner.”
The International Longshore & Warehouse Union Canada (ILWU) has listed contracting out as one of its three key issues. The other two main concerns are cost-of-living wage increases and the impact of automation on job security.
The two sides returned to the bargaining table on Saturday, backed by federal mediators, after negotiations stalled early last week.
“I’m really encouraging the government to use its powers. It sounds like the two sides are a long distance apart,” said Dennis Darby, CEO of Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters (CME).
A coalition of business groups that includes CME has been urging the federal Liberal government to recall Parliament to introduce back-to-work legislation.
But Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan said the focus must be on reaching a settlement at the bargaining table. “Government, industry and labour are all concerned about the consequences of this disruption,” Mr. O’Regan’s office said in a statement on Sunday. “Canadians rely on our B.C. port workers.”
Employers are proposing training programs to address shortages of skilled trades in a bid to help resolve the strike that began on Canada Day. To that end, the BC Maritime Employers Association (BCMEA) is recommending that an independent arbitrator be appointed to chair a sub-committee that would have employers sit down with officials from the waterfront union to discuss the key issue of contracting out.
What constitutes regular maintenance, as performed by unionized workers, would be the focus of discussions by the sub-committee.
The BCMEA has characterized the union as seeking to expand the ILWU’s jurisdictional scope beyond what has been customary for decades in guidelines for regular maintenance at terminals. Workers who operate equipment for moving cargo are ILWU members, and so are employees who conduct regular maintenance on that equipment, such as engineers and mechanics.
But when a roof needs to be replaced, for example, employers call in a third party that specializes in roofing, or if rails need replacing, then railway yard companies are called.
Collectively as an industry, B.C. ports have faced challenges in general in attracting and retaining skilled trades, including electricians and heavy-duty mechanics.
The BCMEA argues that the union has not been able to fulfill a significant percentage of skilled trades through the dispatch hall, prompting employers to call in third parties.
The Port of Vancouver said nine of its 29 terminals have been directly affected by the labour action. Other ports affected include operations in Prince Rupert in northern B.C. and terminals on Vancouver Island.
Bulk-grain shipments are expected to continue being exported overseas, in accordance with the Canada Labour Code. Two B.C. coal-export terminals have kept operating because those employers have their own collective agreements.
The BCMEA, which represents 49 private-sector companies such as shipowners and terminal operators, has said unionized workers are paid well. But ILWU emphasizes that its members have to scramble just to get shifts when they first start out, and wage premiums are hard-earned, with the general base rate being $48.23 an hour for the day shift.
Union leaders say the shipping industry made huge profits during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“All we are asking for is a small share of these profits so workers can continue to do this work with respect and dignity,” ILWU president Rob Ashton said in a statement on Friday.
An array of labour allies attended a Sunday rally in downtown Vancouver to show support for ILWU members.
“We need the profits that we have earned with our labour – our labour that is filling their pockets,” ILWU third vice-president Jessica Isbister said during the rally. “We gather with stories of struggle and solidarity.”
Drewry Shipping Consultants Ltd.’s world container index peaked at US$10,377 in September, 2021, with ships backed up along trade routes as North American demand for consumer goods from Asia skyrocketed.
Freight rates have plunged 86 per cent since then as global demand faltered, dropping to US$1,474 for transporting a 40-foot container last week.