Labour minister promises action to prevent repeat of BC port strike dispute

Canada’s labour minister says the federal government’s newest attempt to prevent disruptive disputes at British Columbia’s ports will lead to change this time.

Seamus O’Regan promised to follow through on recommendations from a review of what went wrong during the strike this summer that stopped cargo from moving through British Columbia’s ports.

Previous studies dating back to the 1990s on the contentious relationship between the longshore union and BC Maritime Employers Association have led to multiple recommendations that were not implemented, but O’Regan says this time will be different.

The minister has appointed two experts from Kingston’s Queen’s University to lead the review, asking them to identify key questions and propose terms of reference by the end of the year.

O’Regan told reporters in Ottawa that when he saw the previous reports, he knew he had the responsibility to make sure the government followed up to prevent another similar port back log.

“Only because it has happened time and time again, and people have said something needs to be done in a more structural way, and so I’ll do it. So, let’s see what they come up with.”

O’Regan said the goal of the latest review is to “examine the structural issues underlying” the dispute that saw strike action in July, adding that Canada needs to demonstrate that it has a stable supply chain.

“We will do this by creating a structure in our port systems that can withstand the kinds of disproportionate disruptions that we saw this summer,” he said.

“A system that in no way takes away from the collective bargaining process, and provides industry and workers with the stability and the certainty that we all need to grow the economy.”

Thousands of workers went on strike from July 1 to July 13, freezing the movement of billions of dollars worth of cargo at some of the country’s busiest ports.

A tentative deal halted that strike action, but when the union caucus rejected the contract there was a brief return to pickets on July 18, only to have that ruled illegal, sending workers back to their jobs.

A full union membership vote rejected the tentative agreement on July 28, and O’Regan directed the industrial relations board to consider imposing a deal or going to binding arbitration.

Two days later, both sides announced they had reached a deal, which was later ratified.

Larry Savage, a professor in the department of labor studies at Brock University, said he thinks O’Regan’s actions are designed to “kick the can down the road” until after the next federal election and won’t amount to much.

“To say you’re going to follow through without knowing the conclusion of the review is irresponsible, but I suspect it’s because the government knows that nothing will come of the review,” he said.

Savage said “tinkering around the edges of the Canada Labor Code” won’t change the issues that led to the port strike, including concerns over automation and outsourcing, or heal the decades of animosity that has built up between the two sides.

He suspects the employers will use the review to push for the government to restrict workers’ right to strike, something that neither the minister nor the union wants.

In 1995 a task force recommended the labour minster create a panel that could provide advice on disputes with significant public interest. It argued that having the panel would balance the public interest with the desire to foster collective bargaining and reduce the appearance of political interference.

No work was ever done to implement that recommendation.

In 2010, a separate report recommended that the labour minister implement a commission to address what it called the “existing unsatisfactory relationship” between the two sides at the ports.

It suggested the commission look at the appropriateness of the maritime employers as the bargaining representative for all employers, and what the resolution should be when collective bargaining has reached an impasse

“There is widespread public interest in bringing resolution to these matters,” the 2010 report says.

“Leaving them to drift is no longer a viable option when the importance of the shipping and transportation industries, to a vibrant Canadian economy, are taken into account.”

O’Regan would not say what potential changes would be.

“But the point is the stability, the point is just maintaining the stability,” he said.