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Containers and shipping cranes lie idle after striking Pacific coast dock workers with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) issued a new 72-hour notice of a walkout in Vancouver on July 19.CHRIS HELGREN/Reuters

The federal government is seeking relief under the Canada Labour Code to resolve an impasse after union members at B.C. ports rejected a mediated tentative agreement.

Federal Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan asked the Canada Industrial Relations Board to intervene on Saturday, hours after the union announced that its eligible voting members turned down the proposed pact that their leadership agreed to accept last week.

He said he asked the board to determine whether the rejection of the recommended collective agreement means that the possibility of a negotiated settlement has been eliminated.

“If the board determines that to be the case, I have directed them to either impose a new collective agreement on the parties or impose final binding arbitration to resolve outstanding terms of the collective agreement,” Mr. O’Regan said in a statement on Saturday. “Our economy cannot face further disruption from this dispute.”

Eligible voters of the International Longshore & Warehouse Union Canada (ILWU) turned down the four-year agreement drafted by a federal mediator, who recommended the deal after talks stalled at the bargaining table.

“We call on our direct employers to come to the table and negotiate something that works for our members and the industry,” ILWU president Rob Ashton said in a statement late Friday night in Vancouver.

About 7,400 members of the ILWU halted their 13-day strike on July 13, and then held a 24-hour walkout last week. Eligible ILWU voters at five longshore locals did not include casual workers, who make up a large portion of the work force.

A timeline of the B.C. port workers strike over the past month

B.C. port union’s caucus approves proposed contract for workers

About 6,000 of the ILWU’s members are in the Vancouver region, 1,000 in the Prince Rupert area in northern B.C. and the rest on Vancouver Island.

The B.C. Maritime Employers Association (BCMEA), which represents 49 private-sector companies such as shipowners and terminal operators, ratified the mediated proposal on July 13.

“The ILWU Canada voting membership have rejected the four-year tentative agreement that was proposed by the senior federal mediator and recommended for ratification by the ILWU bargaining committee and their longshore caucus,” the BCMEA said in a statement.

The BCMEA said the median annual income for longshore workers would have jumped to $162,000 a year, starting in the fourth year of the proposed contract, compared with $136,000 in 2022, not including benefits and pension.

But the ILWU has emphasized that the employers made huge profits during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The union has noted three main issues at the bargaining table: contracting out, cost-of-living wage increases and the impact of automation on job security.

On Friday night, the BCMEA confirmed the mediated proposal’s details, which were first reported by The Globe and Mail. The annual wage increases total 18 per cent nominally, and work out to a compounded wage hike of 19.2 per cent over four years.

The signing bonus, or “inflation adjustment allowance,” would be about $3,000 for a full-time worker, according to the mediated plan drafted by Peter Simpson, director-general of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.

B.C. port strike raises questions about essential agriculture

There is also a $15,000 increase, or 18.5-per-cent boost, to a retirement fund that currently has a $81,250 lump-sum payout for eligible new retirees, under the mediated deal.

“The deal also included measures to improve training, recruitment and retention of ILWU trades workers now and in the future,” the BCMEA said. “Specifically, the BCMEA agreed to provide benefit coverage for all casual trades workers, a new tool allowance and a commitment to increase apprentices by a minimum of 15 per cent.”

The union sought a two-year agreement, while employers proposed a four-year pact.

Business groups have urged the federal government to recall parliament to introduce back-to-work legislation in the event of the situation escalating again into a strike.

The Canadian Chamber of Commerce and the Business Council of Canada issued statements on Saturday, saying the country’s reputation as a reliable trading partner has been tarnished.

“Enough is enough. We can’t continue to play this reckless game,” chamber president Perrin Beatty said. “The federal government can’t just close its eyes and hope for the best any longer. The damage will continue unless it acts.”

Parliament is currently on a summer recess until September.

“The failure to ratify a mediated deal will harm workers and businesses from many sectors across Canada whose employment and income might be impacted, as well as all Canadian families who face rising prices,” said Goldy Hyder, Business Council of Canada president.

The Greater Vancouver Board of Trade estimates that the first work stoppage led to the disruption of $9.9-billion worth of goods between the morning of July 1 and afternoon of July 13, based on a rate of $800-million a day.

“The next steps are unclear but if strike action recommences the economic damage will only increase,” board president Bridgitte Anderson said in a statement on Saturday. “It is time for the federal government and opposition parties to intervene to ensure that our ports stay open, and we can avoid needlessly stoking inflation and affecting other union and non-union jobs.”

Bulk grain shipments and coal have continued being exported overseas during the labour dispute.

On July 13, the union’s bargaining committee approved the tentative pact to initially end the strike. Then the union caucus that originally rejected the tentative deal changed its position on July 21 and approved the package in a new vote, clearing the way for ratification voting by the membership.

The way it unfolded exposed a gap in positions between the caucus and the negotiating team.

Backed by federal mediators during negotiations, the ILWU and the BCMEA have engaged in bargaining sessions that have gone through phases of being on again and off again.

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