The Vancouver Fraser Port Authority and the union representing dock workers are squaring off over automation at a proposed $3.5-billion container terminal that the union says would have far-reaching implications for job security in the industry.
Robin Silvester, the port authority’s president, sought to alleviate concerns about automation reducing the need for workers by promising earlier this month that there would be hundreds of full-time jobs at the Roberts Bank Terminal 2 project, or RBT2, assuming the facility gains federal approval.
Mr. Silvester made the pledge in a letter dated March 5 to Rob Ashton, president of the International Longshore & Warehouse Union Canada, or ILWU, which represents waterfront employees.
“In response to ILWU Canada’s concerns about increasing automation in the container terminal sector, the port authority further commits that the terminal will provide a minimum of 800 full-time equivalent positions for ILWU workers by the time the terminal is operating at full capacity,” Mr. Silvester said in his letter, which was obtained by The Globe and Mail.
In a letter dated March 7, the union rejected Mr. Silvester’s offer.
While the port authority is responsible for finding an operator to run the facility, union leaders say it has overstepped its bounds in trying to establish staffing levels at RBT2 because labour relations are the purview of the BC Maritime Employers Association. The association represents employers such as shipowners and terminal operators in contract negotiations with the union.
The port authority is touting RBT2 as crucial for anticipated growth in transpacific trade. It believes the three-berth terminal, to be completed by the early 2030s, would be necessary to alleviate shipping congestion on the West Coast, which in turn would help reduce bottlenecks in supply chains across the country.
Mr. Ashton pointed out that no terminal operator has been found yet to oversee RBT2, adding that Mr. Silvester has previously vowed that the port authority would not try to influence how the proposed site would be specifically run.
“Your position on ‘awarding’ the work to the ILWU at the RBT2 and making other guarantees on how the terminal will operate is completely opposite to what you have been telling the longshore division for the past several years,” Mr. Ashton wrote in his letter to Mr. Silvester.
Mr. Silvester’s offer of job security came with a condition. He asked ILWU labour leaders to publicly endorse the container terminal project, which calls for the creation of an artificial island to be located near Delta, B.C., about 30 kilometres south of Vancouver.
Such an endorsement from the ILWU would help Canada’s largest port to win political support for the planned container terminal. A long-awaited decision on the contentious project by the federal cabinet is expected to be made by late April. The port authority reports to the federal Transport Minister.
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The union is opposed to RBT2, saying it is worried that the magnitude of automation would place pressure on existing terminal operators to install more machines and equipment to replace many duties currently done by unionized workers. The potential level of automation “will force the current terminals to automate sooner in response to RBT2,” Mr. Ashton said in his letter.
In an interview on Wednesday, he said there are more pressing issues in the supply chain than building a new container terminal that would result in many “jobs being done by robots.”
Finding greater efficiencies in anchorages and rail service must take priority, Mr. Ashton said.
Mr. Silvester said the port authority has sway over RBT2′s job levels for ILWU members. “What we would do is make it a condition in the process that we go through to choose a terminal operator that the terminal operator commits to delivering at least 800 new ILWU jobs,” he said in an interview on Wednesday.
Union leaders have said there are other options for the federal government to consider, notably expansion plans envisaged by GCT Global Container Terminals Inc., which runs a container site near Delta.
GCT wants to increase container capacity at its three-berth Deltaport facility, proposing a fourth berth in a project called Deltaport 4, or DP4.
The shipping industry deploys large vessels to carry containers, which are reusable steel boxes measured as 20-foot equivalent units, or TEUs. RBT2 would add 2.4 million TEUs a year.
Under its proposed DP4 expansion, GCT has forecast a total cost of up to $2-billion to add two million TEUs of annual container capacity at its facility by the early 2030s.
The union also sparred with the port authority last month. Mr. Ashton and union vice-president Pat Bolen wrote an open letter on Feb. 9 to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to express their concerns over RBT2, saying “the proposed level of automation and subsequent job losses would cause disruption on a significant scale.”
Duncan Wilson, the port authority’s vice-president of environment and external affairs, replied the next day with his own open letter. “While work the port authority has completed to date has planned for a semi-automated terminal – similar to other newer container terminals around the world – the future terminal operator will determine the final configuration and operating concept,” Mr. Wilson wrote.