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Divided workers, politicians complicate port truckers strike

Peter Xotta, Port Metro Vancouver
Peter Xotta, Port Metro Vancouver's vice-president of planning and operations, speaks outside the port's Vancouver headquarters, with the Centerm container terminal in the distance.
— image credit: Jeff Nagel / Black Press

The union representing some Lower Mainland container truckers says finger pointing between the federal and provincial governments underscores how difficult it will be to end a strike crippling Port Metro Vancouver shipments.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Premier Christy Clark on Wednesday called the shutdown of most container shipments by truck unacceptable, but then both called on the other level of government to act, saying it's not their primary jurisdiction.

Unifor B.C. area director Gavin McGarrigle said the fragmented container trucking industry will continue to be plagued by rate undercutting by various players unless it's reformed and governed by an over-arching agreement.

Currently, some drivers are paid per container hauled while others get hourly wages, depending on whether they are unionized, working for non-union trucking companies or are independent owner-operators.

Unionized trucking firms refuse to sign new contracts with Unifor because they'll immediately be underbid by the rest of the industry, McGarrigle said.

"It's a mess, it's crazy," he said.

"There are about 180 different employers, there are unions, non-union (groups), fake unions, associations, lobby groups. But there's nobody that has the ability to sit down and bargain a wall-to-wall agreement. And that's what's needed to stop this undercutting once and for all."

Nearly 300 Unifor-represented container truckers have been on strike since Monday, joining several hundred more non-union owner-operators with the United Trucking Association who walked off the job about 10 days earlier.

Port Metro Vancouver officials said some drivers not part of the walkout are continuing to haul.

Spokesman John Parker-Jervis said container truck loading was about 10 to 15 per cent of normal earlier in the week, but that climbed to 24 per cent on Wednesday.

He said the port's offer of ride-along security for drivers that continue to work may be "providing some comfort."

But the crimp on shipments in and out of the port is beginning to be felt, reducing the normal flow into B.C. of imports ranging from South American wine to Asian consumer electronics.

While many firms are looking to redirect shipments through other ports like Seattle, that's also expensive and disruptive.

B.C. Business Council executive director Jock Finlayson said the complex dispute is already causing economic hardship.

"It is doing damage to the reputation of this region as a reliable trade gateway," Finlayson said. "If the dispute persists, the damage can only increase."

The port is also crucial to resource industry exporters – from B.C. forest companies to Prairie grain farmers.

Finlayson said business leaders are "deeply troubled" and strong government action is needed.

Groups representing drivers say they're paid on average $15.59 an hour compared to about $23 an hour in the B.C. trucking industry as a whole.

Peter Xotta, Port Metro Vancouver's vice-president of planning and operations, said said the port makes no apologies for filing a lawsuit for damages against the United Truckers Association, which it blames for violence and intimidation at terminals.

"We're going to take any step we can to encourage the parties to stop that behaviour and get back to work, including legal recourse," he said.

Xotta said the port had been close to unrolling one reform aimed at improving work conditions – extended terminal hours so some trucks can move in the evenings, reducing lineups and wait times during the day.

The challenge has been ensuring shippers and other facilities are also open to send or receive containers at night, he said.

One option under consideration has been a differential port access fee where it would cost truckers less to load at night than during the day, helping subsidize a shift to evenings.

But drivers aren't necessarily keen on the idea.

"That's a solution that benefits the trucking company owners and doesn't really do much for the workers," McGarrigle said.

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