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Strike Gets Underway for More Than 7,400 Port Workers Across BC

Major groups representing businesses across Canada sounded the alarm on Saturday over the potential economic impact of a strike by British Columbia’s port workers.

More than 7,400 members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Canada walked off the job on Saturday morning after days of federally mediated talks with the BC Maritime Employers Association failed to yield a new labour agreement.

The walkout triggered almost immediate reaction from the national business community, including the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.

“One day is too long for this strike,” Deputy Leader of Government Relations Robin Guy said in a telephone interview. “The longer it goes on, the more damage we’re going to see to the Canadian economy.”

Guy said the uncertainty created by the labour dispute at Canada’s busiest ports will hit Canadian families and businesses in the pocket books at a time when inflation has made living and doing business more costly than ever.

“We want this to be resolved as soon as possible. We really do need government actively involved to remedy the strike,” he said. “We need the government to use all the tools in its toolbox to end this dispute.”

The employers association said Saturday that talks took place throughout the night, but negotiators were unable to secure an agreement.

“Over the course of the past couple of days, the BCMEA has continued to advance proposals and positions in good faith, with the objective of achieving a fair deal at the table,” the statement read. “Our Bargaining Committee has made repeated efforts to be flexible and find compromise on key priorities, but regrettably, the Parties have yet to be successful in reaching a settlement.”

The union served a 72-hour strike notice on Wednesday, but could not be reached for comment on Saturday’s developments.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business echoed the Chamber of Commerce’s concerns about the job action now playing out at locations across the province.

“A strike could have serious consequences for our economy and our small businesses. Port operations must remain fluid so as not to exacerbate supply chain disruptions and put further pressure on costs, at a time when we are still facing high inflation,” it said in a statement. “It’s important to remember that strike-related delays can be costly for small businesses, which could lose sales as a result.”

At the Maritime Labour Centre in East Vancouver on Saturday morning, union members gathered and scoured lists posted on outside walls for their picketing assignments.

Striking workers were being dispatched to various port locations, and a small group of ILWU members milled about near the port entrance at Clark and Hastings in East Vancouver on Saturday morning.

The men — wearing placards and buttons depicting a cobra snake and the slogan “will strike if provoked” — all declined to comment on the strike action. They referred all questions to ILWU Canada President Rob Ashton, who couldn’t be reached for comment.

Federal Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan said Saturday the two sides continue to negotiate, adding “the best deals for both parties are reached at the table.”

The strike affects about 7,400 terminal cargo loaders and 49 of the province’s waterfront employers at more than 30 B.C. ports.

In early June, 99.24 percent of union membership voted in favour of strike action.

The ILWU did not provide a 72-hour strike notice on June 21, the earliest possible date for such an action after receiving the authorization vote from its members.

That notice came instead on June 28, with the ILWU issuing a statement at the time that accused the employers association of demanding “major concessions” from the union despite “record profits during the COVID-19 pandemic.” The strike notice came nearly three months after the last contract expired on March 30.

The union also said it was seeking to protect members from the “erosion” of work stemming from outside contract workers and port automation.

The association represents 49 private-sector employers operating in B.C. ports, and its website says the industry contributes $2.7 billion to Canada’s GDP while handling roughly 16 percent of the country’s total traded goods, amounting to $180 billion in 2020.

On Friday both the union and employer confirmed the strike would not affect cruise ships docked in Vancouver, Prince Rupert or Vancouver Island.

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