Work resumes at BC ports after reaching tentative deal

VANCOUVER — Work has resumed at British Columbia ports after a tentative deal was reached to end a strike that had halted cargo movements for 13 days and prompted fears that trade worth billions had been stalled.

A spokesman for the BC Maritime Employers Association said work began again with Thursday’s 4:30pm Pacific-time shift.

The Canadian Press saw workers in safety gear hosing off equipment and walking among containers at a Port of Vancouver cargo yard around 5:30 p.m.

“Between the current 16:30 shift and the 01:00 graveyard shift tonight, we’ve dispatched over 120 jobs just in Local 500 Vancouver (inner harbour) and demand is ramping up with over 500 workers for the 08:00 shift tomorrow morning,” the spokesman wrote in a message.

The employers association earlier announced it had reached a four-year agreement with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Canada, which represents 7,400 workers in the job action that began July 1.

The union has not commented on the deal, but federal Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan and Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said in a joint statement Thursday that both sides were finalizing details of the work resumption.

In a tweet responding to the tentative deal, O’Regan said “the strike is over.”

The tentative deal comes after O’Regan ordered a mediator to issue terms of possible settlement earlier this week, saying the gap in the deadlocked talks was “not sufficient to justify a continued work stoppage.”

The deal is subject to ratification by members of both the union and the employers, and no additional details have been released. The employers association said it “recognizes the skills and efforts of BC’s waterfront workforce.”

BC Premier David Eby applauded the tentative deal.

“I am optimistic that this deal will help bring long-term stability to our ports, solidify Vancouver as a world-class trade centre, strengthen our economy and provide fairness to workers,” he said in a statement.

Both the union and the employers had 24 hours to respond to the mediator’s recommended terms, which both sides received Wednesday morning.

O’Regan and Alghabra thanked both sides, but noted the scale of the disruption has been significant.

“The extent of it has shown just how important the relationship between industry and labour is to our national interest. Our supply chains and our economy depend on it,” their statement said.

“Deals like this, made between parties at the collective bargaining table, are the best way to prevent that. They are the best way to preserve the long-term stability of Canada’s economy. But we do not want to be back here again.”

The strike had halted work at 33 port terminals and other sites in BC Among the ports shut down was Canada’s largest, the Port of Vancouver.

The Greater Vancouver Board of Trade has said there were 63,000 shipping containers stuck on vessels waiting at BC ports to be unloaded as of Wednesday, and that number would have ballooned to 245,000 had the strike persisted to the end of July.

Bridgitte Anderson, CEO of the board, said it was pleased to hear of the tentative deal but it would take time for normal cargo operations to resume and for the economy to recover.

“The consequences of the strike have been felt across various industries nationwide and will continue for some time,” she said.

The board estimated that the 13-day strike, which Anderson said was the longest stoppage in more than 40 years, disrupted $9.7 billion in trade as of Thursday morning.

Dennis Darby, CEO of Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters, said in a statement that it is relieved the “crisis” seems to be over, but noted that manufacturers would be spending the “next several months sorting through the damage and getting caught up.”

“The total cost to our industry is not just the days of the strike, but the days and months of work that precede and follow a disruption,” he said. “This is why we need reforms that will avoid a complete shutdown of Canada’s transportation system and supply chains every six months.”

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith criticized the federal government for its reaction to the strike, saying it needs to be more proactive in the future.

“They need to get involved earlier, make sure that these disputes do not go on this long,” she told reporters Thursday.

“This is essential infrastructure and they need to work with all of the premiers now in expanding the opportunity for us to have more ports of access so that there is that redundancy in the event that we do find ourselves in a labour dispute in future.”

Speaking at an LNG industry conference in Vancouver, Smith also said the Port of Vancouver needed to operate more efficiently.

“It is the second-lowest-performing port in the world and I would hope that everybody, now that there’s an agreement, will double down on ensuring that they improve that performance so that we can get more productivity,” she said.

Canadian Chamber of Commerce CEO Perrin Beatty said the Canadian economy “was seriously damaged” by the labour action.

“This strike demonstrates that government must increase the tools available to ensure labour stability for our critical infrastructure and our supply chains,” he said in a statement Thursday.

But UBC labour relations professor Mark Thompson praised O’Regan for his “good sense of timing” and for not “negotiating in the media.”

“He told the parties they had 24 hours. We don’t know what the alternative to that was and that’s a very good idea that he didn’t make it public,” he said.

Though the details of the agreement have not yet been released, Thompson said he expects operations will resume quickly.

“The port operates very efficiently and they’ll move and they’ll work extra time and I would say that’s a backlog that will be eliminated in fairly short order certainly within a couple of weeks, I would say.”