Labour observers are closely watching the British Columbia port dispute, which has seen workers walk off at more than 30 port terminals for 13 days, freezing the movement of billions of dollars worth of cargo.
As the situation evolves, a full union vote on Friday (Canada time) could resolve the long-standing strike.
However, experts are urging caution ahead of this critical decision.
As reported by Wood Central last week, the proposed ‘terms of settlement’ were accepted by the ILWU bargaining team and recommended to the membership for ratification by the ILWU Canada Longshore Caucus.
On Saturday, Canada’s Labour minister directed the Canada Industrial Relations Board (CIRB) to determine whether a negotiated settlement or arbitration was still possible after the dock workers union in western Canada rejected a contract.
“This state of uncertainty cannot continue,” Minister O’Regan said.
“While our ports operate right now, we need long-term stability for the many workers and businesses that depend on them.”
“As Minister of Labour, I use my authorities under Section 107 of the Canada Labour Code to preserve industrial peace.”
“If the board determines that to be the case, I have directed them to either impose a new collective agreement on the parties or impose final, binding arbitration to resolve outstanding terms of the collective agreement.”
O’Regan said British Columbia’s economy could not face further disruption from this dispute.
The strike activity has hit forest products importers
The strikes have reportedly cost the Canadian economy CAD 500 million per day, with Canadians seeing skyrocketing prices of goods due to disrupted supply routes.
The strike has taken a hefty toll on the port terminals of Vancouver and Prince Rupert, the first and third-most crucial in Canada.
Canfor, one of the world’s largest forest companies, has been hit hard by the strike with “a constrained logistics network in British Columbia” leading to difficulties in supply.
Last week Canfor reported a USD 37.9 million loss in its pulp division, with the strike adding to “weak fundamentals in the global pulp market.”
Canadian Government: All options are on the table
Following the Incident Response Group meeting with the Prime Minister on July 19, the government is prepared for all options and eventualities.
“Canada is a reliable trading partner to the world,” O’Regan said.
“That is good for every worker and employer in this country.”
“But our credibility depends on the stable operation of our supply chains.”
“We must do everything we can to preserve that stability.”
Canada’s Industrial Relations Board warns of “unfair labour practice”
Meanwhile, the Canada Industrial Relations Board warned 7400 workers in the British Columbia port dispute that changing its mind about a new deal during ratification would be an “unfair labour practice”.
A labour law expert said the order showed the complexity of resolving a dispute involving thousands of union members spread over large areas who might have differing priorities for a deal.
“Certainly, the union generally tries to avoid a situation where there is a gap between negotiators and their leadership,” Liam McHugh-Russell, assistant professor at Dalhousie University’s Schulich School of Law, said.
“But it’s often the case that there’s a gap between those negotiating an agreement at the bargaining table and the membership themselves.”
Rising costs and automation fuel increased strike activity
Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reports that McGill University Associate Professor of Sociology Barry Eidlin said union leaders are likely under pressure to sell the deal to members due to the possibility of back-to-work legislation.
But Mr Eidlin said members are aware their leadership previously rejected the deal, which “doesn’t send a strong signal” about the quality of the agreement and gives the impression it is instead getting “rammed through.”
He said the full membership might not be receptive to the deal, given that issues such as automation and jurisdiction of maintenance work may be “existential” for the long-term viability of these workers’ jobs.
Union negotiators initially supported a proposed contract, which union leaders subsequently rejected.
Despite this rejection, the leaders later changed their stance and recommended the contract to the union members.
However, in a full vote conducted last week, the members ultimately rejected the proposal
“There’s the fundamental tension between the workers ΓÇª and the employer,” McHugh-Russell said.
“But there’s also a tension in terms of what workers themselves want, and there’s a difficulty for the union in ensuring that all of those voices and interests get represented at the table.”