Striking truckers choked off traffic almost entirely to Port Metro Vancouver on Monday after rejecting a back-to-work plan over the weekend, raising fears of price spikes if groceries and other goods sit on docks and waiting ships indefinitely.
The truckers are demanding better pay and an end to long, unpaid waits at terminals. More than 300 unionized truck drivers manned picket lines Monday across the Lower Mainland with the goal of "crippling" container traffic.
The drivers joined some of the 1,000 independent truckers who have been protesting outside Canada's busiest Pacific hub since Feb. 26. On Saturday, both parties overwhelmingly rejected a plan that would see them return to work in exchange for a two-month review of the situation at the port by labour negotiator Vince Ready.
"The situation is dire and real for our members," said Gavin McGarrigle, the B.C. area director of the union now known as Unifor. Along with protest lines outside the port terminals, truckers set up pickets outside nearly a dozen local trucking companies. "You'll see shortages of goods on the shelves, and failing that, prices will increase to reflect the delays. It'll give Canada's busiest port a black eye."
With over 180 different trucking companies operating out of the port, each making separate agreements with hundreds of suppliers and the private operators of each terminal, the situation is complex. Drivers compare the port to the Wild West, complaining of bribes and illegal undercutting by competition.
According to the union, truckers at the port make $15.59 an hour, substantially less than the B.C. average for a trucker of $23 an hour.
While operators are required to follow rates established after a six-week strike in 2005, drivers say some trucking companies sometimes offer to do the work for as little as $50 a container. The port has promised to look into violators, but union leaders hold little hope after eight years of what they described as failures to enforce the rules.
"This is a failed market. We're going to be out here as long as it takes, we need to end this undercutting once and for all," Mr. McGarrigle said.
As much as $885-million in cargo passes through the port weekly, half of which is carried by trucks. Port Metro Vancouver will be in court Tuesday to request an injunction to forbid independent truckers from protesting on port lands.
"We agree that truckers must be paid a fair rate, but we are not the employer and cannot interfere directly with employment and contract agreements between truckers and trucking companies," port spokesman John Parker-Jervis wrote in a statement.
According to Louise Yako, president of the B.C. Trucking Association, some shippers could look south to the ports along the American Pacific Coast during the strike. She is most worried for the smaller B.C. carriers that are "captive" to the Vancouver port and will lose business. She said the loud truckers out on the picket lines are a minority.
"A small core has been intimidating drivers who would much prefer to be working. Given that environment, there are a large number of drivers and operators who have chosen not to go to work because they are fearful," Ms. Yako said.
Manny Dosange couldn't conceal his anger at the characterization of his group as a minority. As spokesman for the independent truckers, the United Truckers Association, Mr. Dosange strained to be heard over loud sloganeering.
"This is our status quo. We'll keep our guys on the line," he said. "I don't know who they think they are fooling to say that it's a minority out here, that's just wrong."
The truckers association is establishing a whistleblower phone line to allay the fears of drivers worried they will lose their jobs if they speak out. With negotiations stalled, Mr. Dosange warned that everything from French fries to running shoes will go uncollected until he's presented with a fair deal.
Recommendations requested by the provincial and federal governments to resolve the strike are due on May 30.