Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has convened the incident response group to discuss the unfolding industrial action in British Columbia ports after the longshore union renewed a 72-hour strike notice.
The International Longshore and Warehouse Union Canada says it did so in the hope of returning to the bargaining table, and it “regrets” the economic impact of the dispute that previously shut down B.C. ports for 13 days at the start of the month, stalling cargo worth billions.
Trudeau’s move underscores the importance being attached to the dispute, with the response group only convened at times of “national crisis,” or to discuss events with major implications for Canada.
Consisting of cabinet ministers and senior officials, it has previously been convened over events including the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, blockades associated with the Freedom Convoy movement last year, and the short-lived rebellion in Russia last month.
The B.C. Maritime Employers Association says the notice means strike action could resume from about 9 a.m. Saturday.
The union says in a statement that it wants Ottawa to “allow free collective bargaining to occur.”
About 7,400 workers at more than 30 B.C. port terminals and other sites began striking on Canada Day and originally returned to work last Thursday after a tentative deal was drafted by a federal mediator.
But workers briefly returned to picket lines on Tuesday afternoon after the union caucus rejected the four-year contract.
The Canada Industrial Relations Board ruled that was unlawful and ordered members to cease and desist from strike action until proper 72-hour notice had been given. It said the union’s position was that it didn’t need to provide notice since there was an ongoing strike.
The employers association said in a statement Wednesday that resuming the strike action was “unnecessary and reckless.”
“The re-issuance of strike notice shows that we will be facing a repeat of actions by the (International Longshore and Warehouse Union Canada) leadership that will continue to grind operations to a halt at Canada’s largest ports,” the statement said.
The employers said the union was presented with a “fair and balanced deal” and that renewal of the strike means the union is “doubling down on holding the Canadian economy hostage.”
In Wednesday’s statement, union president Rob Ashton said the union’s caucus “was not satisfied the mediator’s deal met the membership’s goals and directed the bargaining committee to seek a negotiated agreement.”
By late Wednesday morning, picket lines had disappeared from the BCMEA dispatch centre near the Port of Vancouver, and trucks were seen sporadically coming in and out of port facilities.
The employers association said the board’s decision came too late to dispatch workers for Wednesday’s 8 a.m. shift.
It said workers at Vancouver’s inner harbour were scheduled to return for their 1 a.m. shift on Thursday, while work was scheduled to resume in other port areas including Prince Rupert on Wednesday afternoon.
The union has said the four-year term of the mediator’s proposed agreement was “far too long” and “employers have not addressed the cost of living issues” faced by workers in the last few years.
Federal Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan and Transport Minister Omar Alghabra issued a statement late Tuesday saying workers and employers across Canada cannot face further disruption and that they were looking at all options.
The ministers said they have been patient and respected the collective bargaining process, but they need the ports operating.
“The deal presented to the parties was the result of a constructive and substantive collective bargaining process,” the ministers said in their statement.
“It represented a fair and balanced deal. It was informed by weeks of collective bargaining and drafted by third-party mediators in the interest of both the union and the employer.”
The original strike froze billions of dollars worth of cargo from moving in and out of harbours, including at Canada’s busiest port in Vancouver.
B.C. Premier David Eby expressed dismay at the developments.
“It’s profoundly disappointing to see that we’re back where we were before, but I can’t help but feel that whatever is separating the parties is not worth this disruption. They’ve got to get it sorted out at the table as quickly as possible,” he said at an unrelated press conference Wednesday.
Eby said relying on Ottawa to bring in back-to-work legislation would not be a quick solution.
“A short and immediate-term solution is not federal legislation and counting on the minority parliament in Ottawa to step in. The parties need to accept the responsibility that they have on both sides to come to the table in good faith and solve this for Canadians quickly.”
But support for back-to-work legislation came from the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.
“The 13-day strike had already done significant damage to small businesses across the country and Canada’s international reputation as a dependable trading partner,” federation executive vice-president Corinne Pohlmann said in a statement.
“To let it carry on any further is negligent and will amplify disruptions of the supply chain.”
Robin Guy, vice-president and deputy leader of government relations, at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, said further delay will cause the Canadian economy more harm.
“We’re calling on the government and all parties to agree to reconvene parliament and pass back-to-work legislation immediately,” Guy said.
Greater Vancouver Board of Trade president Bridgitte Anderson said in a statement that she’s concerned about the “chaos taking place at our west coast ports.”
“Canadian businesses and the entire supply chain cannot adequately plan their operations and staffing without knowing whether the port will be open from one minute to the next,” she said.
“Canadians need assurance of stability at Canada’s west coast ports, both now and in the future.”
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau must end the strike immediately because of the massive cost to workers, consumers and businesses.
“We’re calling on him to deliver a plan to end this strike within the next 24 hours,” Poilievre said.
Meanwhile, NDP transport critic Taylor Bachrach said it’s a part of union bargaining rights to be able to reject an agreement.
“We know that their team is ready to get back to the table right away and we encourage other parties to do the same,” Bachrach said.
“We are also renewing our call for the federal government to support the collective bargaining process, rather than resorting to the sort of back-to-work legislation that Liberal and Conservative governments have imposed far too often.”
— With files by Chuck Chiang and Craig Wong
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 19, 2023.
Ashley Joannou, The Canadian Press