Canada: Port of Vancouver truckers’ strike wins significant gains

After bosses’ seen off – unions must defend their right to strike!

For the last month, the main roads of Vancouver have been usually quiet as around 1,500 truck drivers who service the port of Vancouver have been on strike. On Thursday, 28 March, after defying many threats, the drivers went back to work having won significant improvements in their working conditions.

These strikes was unusual as the majority of the drivers, about 1,200, are not in a union, self employed or own their own rigs. They are paid for each trip they make rather than a time rate. They are organized in the United Truckers’ Association of BC (UTA).

The strike started on 26 February, when over 1,200 UTA truckers stopped work due to growing anger at long delays in the port, which cost them money. The last increase in rates for port drivers was in 2006, following a 6 week strike in 2005. Many drivers were being paid less now than in 2006 due to undercutting. After voting 98% in favour of strike, over 300 unionized drivers, members of Unifor, stopped work on 10 March.

The Port of Vancouver is Canada’s busiest port, handling $175 billion worth of goods in a year. About half of the port’s container traffic is on trucks and the other half is moved by rail. The strike had reduced truck traffic to only 10% of normal business. The strike was hitting major exporters and importers. The Port Authority estimated that the strike was affected about $885 million worth of cargo every week.

The key issues for the drivers were the low rate for each trip, lengthy delays at container terminals that meant they were unable to make enough trips in a day to make a living, unpaid time waiting to load and unload and undercutting of rates by some of the companies involved.

The truckers are not directly employed by the Port but are either under independent contracts, sub-contractors or direct employees of shipping companies operating in and out of the port. The process of finding an agreement was complicated as it involved the Federal government that owns the port, the British Colombia (BC) provincial government, the Port Authority and the various shipping and haulage companies that operate in the port.

Unionised and non-unionised take joint action

On 13 March the Federal and Provincial governments and the Port put forward a proposal to end the strike. However, the points in this plan had not been negotiated with the drivers. In fact, the government and Port refused to negotiate with the truckers’ representatives; Port spokesperson, John Parker-Jervis, stated that the plan “is not a negotiation”. The drivers, both in UTA and Unifor, rejected this plan.

After the truckers’ rejection of the plan, the government and Port shifted to threats, trying to defeat the strike. The Port threatened to revoke the licenses of drivers who did not return to work and stepped up its legal action against the drivers. The Province of BC announced it would legislate to force the unionised drivers back to work, introducing the bill on Monday 24 March. The province also stated it would not negotiate until the drivers were back to work.

The legislation ordered a 90-day cooling-off period with the union members going back to work and the threat of large fines on the union and individual members. However, it would not hit the 1,200 non-unionised drivers and Unifor had stated it would defy the back to work law. There was every chance that the dispute would continue and get nasty.

The strike was having a major impact on the BC and Canadian economy. In the last week of the strike, ships were diverting to other ports and port officials warned that the port would soon be unable to handle a lot of imports and exports due to the large number of uncollected containers choking docks.

Finally on Wednesday, the day before the back-to-work bill would become law, the BC government and the Port changed tack, meeting with the truckers’ representatives and negotiated. After lengthy negotiations an agreement was reached, which includes:

· A 12% increase to trip rate payments

· Increased wait time payments

· Action to reduce wait times

· Action to stop undercutting by companies

· The Port will rescind any licence suspensions, except where criminal charges have been laid

· The Port will dismiss without costs its legal action against the UTA

· The Port will not take any further action against Unifor or UTA or its members due to the dispute

The willingness of governments in Canada, both provincially and federally, to legislate against strikes is a danger to organized workers. Canadians may have the right to join a union, but the right to act is under threat. Prime Minister Harper’s Conservatives have passed back-to-work legislation against striking railway workers, Canada Post workers, and Air Canada workers. The BC Liberals passed legislation against teachers in 2012 to force them back to work, and other provinces have taken similar actions. At some stage, Canadian unions will have to face up to this threat and defend their right to strike. If unions continue to allow the government to take away their rights, then striking will become either ineffectual or impossible, which would enormously weaken the union movement in Canada. When a union does take a stand to defend its right to fight for its members and defies government legislation, all the unions should take solidarity action or the entire union movement will be weaker.

The truckers’ strike answers many who say the working class has disappeared and that workers have little power. Although the majority of the truckers are owner-operators and not in a union, they still took collective working class action by going on strike. In a few weeks, around 1,500 drivers brought the busiest port in Canada almost to a standstill with the prospect of no more containers traffic in days. That is the power of the working class.

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April 2014