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Industrial Relations Board directed to review and potentially end B.C. port dispute

The convening of the government’s incident response group is typically reserved for moments of national crisis
Gantry cranes sit idle as a container ship is docked at port during a work stoppage, in Vancouver, on Wednesday, July 19, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

The Canada Industrial Relations Board was tasked with reviewing and potentially ending the British Columbia port labour dispute as of Saturday (July 29) after the second rejection of a tentative labour deal sparked mounting calls for back-to-work legislation.

Federal Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan laid out the move in a statement released Saturday, saying he has directed the CIRB to determine if a negotiated resolution in the dispute is still possible after the union said its full membership rejected the latest deal on Friday night.

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O’Regan said the board is to “either impose a new collective agreement on the parties or impose final binding arbitration” if it determines a negotiated resolution is no longer possible.

“Our economy cannot face further disruption from this dispute,” O’Regan’s statement said. “Following the Incident Response Group meeting with the Prime Minister on July 19, the government is prepared for all options and eventualities.”

The convening of the government’s incident response group is typically reserved for moments of national crisis.

This is the second time the board will weigh in on the months-long dispute between International Longshore and Warehouse Union Canada and the BC Maritime Employers Association.

On July 19, the board ruled a brief return to picket lines by port workers the day before was illegal without sufficient notice, bringing an end to that work stoppage after previous strike action halted operations at B.C. ports from July 1 to 13.

Saturday’s development came after a Friday evening announcement from the union representing 7,400 workers. It said a full-membership vote has rejected a tentative agreement drafted by a federal mediator, putting operations at more than 30 port terminals and other sites back in limbo.

Several business groups and one political leader have renewed their calls for the federal government to legislate an end to the dispute, which froze billions of dollars’ worth of goods at Canada’s West Coast ports — such as Vancouver, the largest in the country — during the 13-day stoppage in early July.

In a statement, Alberta Premier Danielle Smith described the disruption as a “logistical nightmare” for Western Canada’s economy and called for all federal parties to “immediately return to Ottawa and pass back-to-work legislation.”

Organizations such as the Business Council of Canada, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business and the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade have echoed Smith’s sentiments, implying or outright stating support for a legislated end to the dispute.

“The failure to ratify a mediated deal will harm workers and businesses from many sectors across Canada whose employment and income might be impacted, as well as all Canadian families who face rising prices,” Business Council of Canada President and CEO Goldy Hyder said in a statement. “Enough is enough.”

GVBOT President and CEO Bridgitte Anderson said Canada cannot risk the economic fallout of another strike stemming from the dispute.

“An agreed-upon deal has now been rejected twice by the union,” Anderson said. “It is time for the federal government and opposition parties to intervene to ensure that our ports stay open, and we can avoid needlessly stoking inflation and affecting other union and non-union jobs.”

But federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said the better course of action is to get the feuding parties back to the negotiating table.

“We cannot lose sight of what is at stake for B.C. port workers, but also for all workers,” Singh said in a statement. “Going to work to earn a living that feeds your family and puts a roof over your head is not too much to ask when CEOs are enjoying record profits.”

Labour movement researcher Barry Eidlin said O’Regan’s decision to direct the CIRB to act on the port dispute is essentially a “sanitized” version of back-to-work legislation, calling it a more bureaucratic way to achieve the same effect as a legislative end to the conflict.

Eidlin, an associate professor of sociology at McGill University, said the move does nothing to improve Canada’s reputation for “putting its finger on the scale” in favour of employers, noting the country’s historical tendency to force an end to labour disputes has already attracted criticism from groups such as the United Nations’ International Labour Organization.

“Ending the immediate industrial conflict at hand does not resolve the underlying issues that have led to the conflict,” Eidlin said. “It’s just swept under the rug, so they can just bubble up later.”

He also said an overreliance on back-to-work legislation or similar measures could result in the union and its members taking strike action regardless of legality, a hallmark of union movements of decades past as workers fought for fundamental rights that were not respected, often against the laws of those times.

While the port workers’ union’s statement did not say why members rejected the agreement, the union has repeatedly mentioned the onset of automation in the port industry and the jurisdiction of maintenance work “aggressively eroded” by third-party contractors.

In a since-deleted Facebook post, ILWU Local 500 Vice-President Rickey Baryer said maintenance work “will be a huge part” of longshore workers’ future, and the language in the deal did not preserve union members’ role in this job area.

“All I will say is that I pray that our members from all Locals see that the government forced a contract on us that is the beginning of the end of our very existence,” Baryer wrote in the post published before the union revealed its voting results.

Baryer, who said in the post he is on the union’s bargaining committee, declined to comment to The Canadian Press about the vote results.

The BCMEA said the rejected deal included a compounded wage increase of 19.2 per cent and a signing bonus amounting to about $3,000 per full-time worker. It added the result would have “potentially” boosted union longshore worker’s median annual wage from $136,000 to $162,000, not including pension and benefits.

Chuck Chiang, The Canadian Press

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