Canada: Dockworkers strike declared illegal, among ominous government moves

July 26, 2023
BC dockworkers strike
More than 7400 members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Canada took strike action at 30 ports in British Columbia. Photos: ILWUCanada/FB, Wikimedia

The weeks-long strike of more than 7400 dock workers — members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Canada (ILWU) — at 30 ports in British Columbia, took another strange turn on July 19.

The ILWU tentatively ended its strike on July 13, then resumed the strike and pickets on July 18, following a decision by its internal caucus not to send a government-mediated proposed agreement to members for ratification. The union then quietly took down picket lines only hours later and ended the strike.

The decision to end the strike followed ominous moves by the federal government and the Canadian Industrial Relations Board (CIRB) — the federal body that administers Canada’s Labour Code and oversees industrial relations in the federal private sector.

The CIRB controversially ruled that the resumption of the strike was “illegal” because the union had failed to provide 72 hours notice — treating it as a “new” strike. These moves suggest the CIRB is taking a more aggressive, anti-union, anti-strike approach, which threatens future industrial action by unions, if upheld.

Faced with the additional threat of “back-to-work” legislation being introduced, the ILWU decided to take the very deal it had rejected to members for ratification. The vote will come some days after a scheduled meeting with members.

This result can only be understood as the outcome of a concerted attack on the union, one with dangerous implications for working class organising. Under threat, the union leadership caved to these pressures to hawk the deal to members. Members know the deal is a bad one, since even the leadership had already rejected it.

What happened?

In the short period in which the pickets went back up Prime Minister Justin Trudeau convened a meeting of the Incident Response Group (IRG), a secretive body, including among it federal government ministers and senior officials from the military and intelligence agencies. The IRG is described as “a dedicated, emergency committee that will convene in the event of a national crisis or during incidents elsewhere that have major implications for Canada”.

It is assumed that this crisis meeting was aiming to impose back-to-work legislation against the striking workers. An expectation of repressive legislation had been floated by business associations (in Canada and the United States) as well as by individual companies, and provincial premiers called on the federal government to introduce it from the start of the strike.

Around the same time as the crisis meeting took place, the British Columbia Maritime Employers Association (BCMEA) turned to the CIRB to declare the resumption of the strike illegal — and the government body did not disappoint.

CIRB issued its report declaring the strike illegal, with absurd reasoning that reworks Canadian labour law and strike protocols. This was not a new strike. It was simply the resumption of a strike that had been merely suspended while the union considered the government mediator’s proposed settlement.

The ILWU explained their version of events in a statement: “As required by our constitution, the ILWU contract caucus considered the tentative contract in a two-day meeting. The caucus was not satisfied the mediator’s deal met the membership’s goals and directed the bargaining committee to seek a negotiated agreement. After advising the Minister of Labour and the BCMEA, the ILWU resumed its lawful picketing activities. Although the ILWU removed its picket lines voluntarily while it considered the tentative agreement, the BCMEA decided to exploit our good faith move by complaining to the CIRB that the ILWU has commenced a new strike for which 72 hours’ notice was required.

“The ILWU has followed Canadian labour law which holds that a strike continues from the moment of job action until the ratification of a collective agreement. The CIRB however, did not follow the established cases, and determined that [a] new strike notice was required. The ILWU will appeal the CIRB decision but will respect the ruling and reissue notice.”

The CIRB decision is a farce and a complete distortion of facts and the law. It is not surprising, however, coming from a pro-capital government body within a system that already restricts working-class organising to legalistic frameworks — in which interpretations of law can then be twisted, as occurred here.

Some lessons

Some immediate lessons from this are clear: never take down picket lines until a deal has been fully ratified and secured; never put trust in the imagined good faith of employers; and never believe that the state — and its labour law overseers — is neutral.

Most importantly, this should call into question the harms of union reliance on a capitalist legal basis and the need to reorient union action towards the material needs of workers rather than the legal preferences of capital and the state.

Clearly rank-and-file organising is needed. Through rank-and-file committees within workplaces, solidarity pickets or flying squads, connections and mutual aid can be built between unionised workers and oppressed people in other working-class struggles, over issues such as housing, Indigenous land defense and anti-poverty.

It must also be recognised that the social democratic party in Canada, the New Democratic Party (NDP) is no friend of workers in struggle. The 2022 NDP agreement to provide “confidence-and-supply” will keep the federal Liberals in government until June 2025.

The NDP could have openly threatened the Liberals with an early election over the strike but it did not. BC NDP Premier David Eby even joined calls for the federal government to do “everything” to get a negotiated settlement, without explicitly calling for back to work legislation.

Despite the obvious need for solidarity and support from other unions for the dockers, such support failed to materialise beyond statements. Canadian Labour Congress and BC Federation of Labor (BCFED) member unions did not show up with force in large numbers, did not organise solidarity pickets, did not mobilise against government offices or against the businesses calling for repressive legislation. Some Vancouver anti-poverty activists took an openly hostile stance towards the striking workers.

The dockers are being made an example of — a signal by the state and capital to other workers. This was clear with all the talk of impacts to “Canada’s reputation”, “corporate reliability” and “global competitiveness” during the strike. Of course, logistics workers in particular are crucial in the realisation of profit for capital, given the integration of dispersed supply chains.  

Governments and capital will be emboldened by this. It stands to further weaken working class organising in a context already marked by austerity and retrenchment.

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