B.C. port workers lockout could begin Thursday — and cost Canadian economy billions per day

The B.C. Maritime Employers Association (BCMEA) has served lockout notice to port workers effective Thursday morning in response to stalled contract negotiations.

The union says a lockout would shut “down the entire West Coast shipping industry,” affecting the Port of Vancouver and every other facility across B.C. that is a member of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), including around 20 facilities and 7,000 workers.

Cruise and grain workers would not be included.

Jeff Scott, board chair of the BCMEA, said while no talks are scheduled for before Thursday, the employers are seeking mediation and are open to more negotiations. A lockout could take effect as early at 8 a.m. PT that day.

“It’s a significant action and it’s not something we take lightly; we would rather be at the bargaining table,” Scott said.

“We recognize the importance of keeping the ports open for business. We know the economic impact to the B.C. economy and the Canadian economy.”

Scott said disruption at B.C.’s ports could cost the Canadian economy about $5 billion a day.

Citing numbers from the Port of Vancouver, he said $540 billion worth of cargo coming in and out of the city’s port alone would be affected.

Union seeks ‘fair’ language

Port workers began limited job action on Monday that includes a ban on working overtime in two terminals (in Vancouver and Delta) after parties walked away from the bargaining table following weekend talks.

In a written statement, the ILWU called the possible lockout a “reckless, irresponsible and needless decision.”

ILWU president Rob Ashton said the union will go to the table Wednesday and hopes to get a deal before the provincewide lockout begins.

“The word shocked doesn’t even cover how we feel right now, that the employers decided to shut the province down over a small issue like an overtime ban,” he said.

Ashton said the union is aiming for “fair language in the collective agreement around automation” to ensure jobs are protected.

“The effects that automated terminals could have not only on my work force but on the communities they live in, the ramifications are massive,” he said.

“We’re urging the employer to come back to the table and work with us to have language that helps protect the workers they allegedly say that they respect and want to save.”

The BCMEA argues automation is already addressed in the collective agreement and moving toward automated ports is necessary to keep jobs in Canada.

The union voted over 98 per cent in favour of a strike mandate earlier this month.

Trouble for importers, exporters

According to Greg Wilson of the Retail Council of Canada, the affected ports handle two-thirds of imported goods coming into this country.

Supply disruptions could occur if a prolonged lockout requires U.S. ports to handle ships laden with goods destined for Canada, he added.

“Most of the goods on the shelves are made elsewhere in the world and Canadians have developed a taste for foreign-made goods,” Wilson explained.

For exporters, the situation is also troubling.

Mo Amir is the general manager of SPF Precut Lumber, a Coquitlam-based wholesale lumber exporter. The company ships 100 containers each week through B.C. ports to 20 countries for use in manufacturing.

“A dispute means that we’re going to keep receiving inventory in our yard, it’s going to start stockpiling quite a bit,” Amir told On The Coast host Gloria Macarenko.

“And we have no ability to bill our customers because we have no ability to ship out the wood.”

He’s hopeful, however, that the situation will be resolved quickly.

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