As trade at Canada's busiest port remains jammed by a 20-day-old trucker strike, B.C.'s Transportation Minister called Monday on federal officials and union leaders to continue discussions, stating his disappointment with inconclusive talks so far.
More than $125-million worth of goods moved through Vancouver's port daily before truckers began forming picket lines on Feb. 26. As of last Friday, road traffic out of port terminals was down 73 per cent. More than half of the truckers accredited to serve the port are now refusing to work.
Hundreds of layoff notices have been sent to sawmills and other factories across the province as railroads and port terminals have stopped accepting many goods for export. Officials at the port have warned that they will soon be unable to process a number of import and exports due to the large number of uncollected containers choking docks.
"British Columbians and all Canadians are counting on the federally regulated port and the truckers to get back to the table and continue to discuss the issues and seek a resolution as quickly as possible," said B.C. Transportation Minister Todd Stone.
To seek an end to the strike, both levels of government agreed on a 14-point plan last week. The plan provided for increases to trucker wages, an end to undercutting between companies and a solution to long waiting times at congested port terminals.
Officials finally met with union leaders on Sunday morning to discuss the plan. The talks went poorly, according to Gavin McGarrigle, the B.C. area director of the Unifor union.
"The first statement out of their mouths was, 'This isn't a negotiation.' What about our concerns, we asked? 'Those are legitimate, but we won't be talking about them before you get back to work.' We asked if we could have a mediator present, they repeated that it wasn't a negotiation," said Mr. McGarrigle.
The talks quickly adjourned and no further meetings have been scheduled.
In a written statement provided by her office, federal Transportation Minister Lisa Raitt said that the government's plan would only be implemented "once the port returns to full operations." In a move seen as provocative by truckers, she added that the port licences of striking truckers could be suspended or terminated unless they return to work.
Echoing the minister, port spokesman John Parker-Jervis said that the government's plan "is not a negotiation."
Unable to intervene directly in the matter, Mr. Stone has said he planned a "frank discussion" with the head of the port on Monday evening.
"I want to understand where their commitment is to sitting back down with the truckers," he said.
According to the union, truckers were encouraged by a government proposal to institute a $25 flat fee if they were stuck waiting for more than two hours to access a terminal. However, truckers asked that the fee be higher, as it would fall well short of the provincial minimum wage of $10.25, once fuel and maintenance costs are factored in.
"We're ready at any time to talk, but so far all we've received is an ultimatum," said Mr. McGarrigle.
As much as $885-million in cargo transits through the port weekly, half of which is carried by trucks. At least two ships have so far changed their itineraries to unload in Washington State. According to Mr. Parker-Jervis, more cancellations are expected.
With other major ports on the East and West coasts still operating, officials at Vancouver's port worry that businesses could hesitate about using their facilities in the future.
"The longer term impact is reputational," said Peter Xotta, a vice-president at the Port of Vancouver. "This will give rise for greater concern about the reliability for this gateway. We need to return to work."