Global Timber: Rising Costs, Automation Fuels Port Strikes

The Canadian Government is losing patience with strike action with reports it will bring back-to-work legislation to resolve the conflict.

Thu 27 Jul 23


As workers examine a potential agreement with employers, a Canadian labour researcher has warned that other large-scale disputes similar to the industrial action at British Columbia’s ports may be on the horizon.

As reported by Wood Central on Monday, rank-and-file members of the International Longshoremen and Warehouse Union are assessing a new industrial agreement. 

According to the B.C. Maritime Employers Association it s the same agreement union leaders had previously rejected without a full-membership vote.

Footage courtesy of @CBCVancouver.

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.”

Mr Eidlin also 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.

“This isn’t just about dollars and cents or a pension increase,” Eidlin said.

“Not that those things aren’t important, but these are some fundamental issues about the future of what work on the dock will look like.

“Even if you have the threat of back-to-work legislation looming over the whole process,” he said.

“I think the issues at stake are of such import that members are going to think hard about what the language in this contract is — and whether or not they can live with it.”

Associate Professor of Sociology Barry Eidlin anticipates further strike action due to cost of living pressures and the threat of automation on the ports. (Photo Credit: Barry Eidlin Supplied).

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union Canada and the B.C. Maritime Employers Association agreed to a tentative four-year deal on Thursday morning, ending a 13-day shutdown of more than 30 ports in B.C., including Canada’s largest, the Port of Vancouver. 

The ports in question represent some of the busiest for forest products in the world – with the Port Metro and Port Rupert being among North America’s major ports for engineered wood and pulp products.

According to Mr Eidlin, similar issues facing workers in other industries, along with the mounting challenges of cost of living and workplace flexibility, may change the labour movement’s calculations on whether to use strike action as a negotiating tactic — something that has flatlined since the 1990s.

The ongoing threat of strike has frustrated the Canadian Government.

“I think the current moment that we’re living in suggests that we could have reached some sort of breaking point, where enough workers are saying, ‘We’ve had enough, we need to do something.”‘

ILWU members filed into meetings at Vancouver’s Croatian Cultural Centre later today (Australian time) to hear from leaders of the Local 500 chapter, representing longshore and other port workers in the city.

The labour dispute triggered a 13-day strike on Canada Day, stopping billions of dollars worth of goods from moving in and out of some of the country’s busiest ports.

Tied up in the strike action included pulp products, which comprised 80% of cargo at Port Metro in central Vancouver. 

Last week Wood Central reported that Asia was the cargo’s final destination, with the strike having global implications for the trade of pulp-based products.

Due to the increasingly globalised nature of forest products, strike action at ports has a major impact on the supply chains for all timber-based products. Footage courtesy of @aljazeeraenglish.
Court decisions may limit back-to-work legislation.

Liam McHugh-Russell, an assistant law professor at Dalhousie University’s Schulich School of Law, described the turbulent developments as “uncommon but not unheard of” in labour negotiations.

Despite appeals for back-to-work legislation from provincial and corporate leaders, according to McHugh-Russell, the federal government has been reluctant to take that step in the wake of important Supreme Court decisions in 2007 and 2015.

After a verdict, collective bargaining became legal in 2007, and strike provisions were added in 2015.

“We are seeing to some degree a playing-out of a shift and a change in the constitutional context in which strikes are played out,” McHugh-Russell said.

“[The Supreme Court decisions] have put the brakes on the ability and willingness of government to bring in legislative solutions to these problems.”

Union members are expected to vote on the offer later this week, but there’s no word yet on when the results could be made public.


  • Wood Central

    Wood Central is Australia’s first and only dedicated platform covering wood-based media across all digital platforms. Our vision is to develop an integrated platform for media, events, education, and products that connect, inform, and inspire the people and organisations who work in and promote forestry, timber, and fibre.


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