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The Port of Vancouver is pictured after unionized port workers were locked out in Vancouver, B.C., on Thursday, May 30, 2019. Union members voted 98.4 per cent in favour of a strike earlier this month.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

A tentative agreement has been reached just ahead of the launch of a labour disruption that threatened to shut down all British Columbia ports on Thursday and cause a ripple effect across the Canadian economy.

About 6,500 longshore workers at ports from Metro Vancouver to Prince Rupert had already begun setting up picket lines as a lockout notice issued by the association expired Thursday morning. Union members voted 98.4 per cent in favour of a strike earlier this month.

The lockout would not have affected workers serving cruise ships and grain operations.

Had a shutdown proceeded, the potential widespread financial impacts could have amounted to $5-billion a day across Canada, Jeff Scott, chairman of the B.C. Maritime Employers Association (BCMEA), had warned earlier this week.

But things had turned around midmorning on Thursday. Representatives of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and the BCMEA both said they expected the last-minute agreement would be welcomed by their members.

“It’s fair and balanced, and it provides a stable platform to grow cargo in the gateway, which is what this is all about,” Mike Leonard, president and CEO of the BCMEA, said in a joint scrum with Robert Ashton, president of the ILWU of Canada.

Both men said they could not get into the details of the agreement prior to ratification by workers.

Mr. Ashton credited the tentative deal to marathon bargaining.

“Twenty-five hours straight without a break, and hard work,” he said, explaining the breakthrough.

Contract talks had been under way with the help of a moderator appointed by the federal government amid concerns about technological changes in port operations that would eliminate jobs, according to an earlier union statement.

Mr. Leonard said there was a lot of pressure on both sides to get a deal done, citing the strike notice and lockout notice as the pressure points.

“At the end, it really came down to focusing, crystallizing the issues and getting what needed to be done, done.”

The lockout was lifted and both men said normal operations would resume late Thursday afternoon.

“Back to work. 16:30 shift. Everybody is going to be at the dispatch hall. We’re going to fill the jobs and start moving the cargo,” Mr. Leonard said.

Automation was a key issue in the talks, with the employers association saying it would protect and enhance jobs while the union countered that automation would “decimate” ports and harm workers.

The last collective agreement expired March 31, 2018, and the union says negotiations began 18 months ago.

The employers association represents about 55 companies that employ about 7,000 workers. It said about 60 million tonnes of goods worth $53-billion are moved in and out of the ports every year.

With a file from The Canadian Press.

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