Canada: Gov't pushes dock workers union to tentatively end strike

July 16, 2023
Jeff Shantz: 'Acceptance of the deal can be seen as at least a partial capitulation by the union.' Image: @500Dispatch/Twitter

The strike by nearly 7500 dockworkers in British Columbia may have come to an end after nearly two weeks as the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and BC Maritime Employers Association (BCMEA) announced early Thursday morning that they had reached a tentative agreement.

According to the union, the agreement came just 10 minutes before a deadline imposed by the federal labour minister Seamus O’Regan for accepting the recommended settlement terms given by a federal mediator. The proposed agreement was emailed to the two sides on July 12.

This was clearly a coercive move by the federal Liberal government, coming as it did with a strict 24-hour deadline. While O’Regan did not publicly attach a threat of "back-to-work" legislation, this was clearly implied. In his words, after announcing the 24-hour deadline: “I’m not imposing an agreement. I feel that they are that close. I characterized it as a forceful nudge. We’ve got to get over the finish line. I worry about the stability of our supply chain if this carries on.” The union clearly understood what a forceful nudge would mean for them.

At the time of writing, the full terms of the deal have not been released publicly and dockworkers will still need to vote to ratify, or reject, the deal. Details will not likely be provided until after that vote. We do know that at least one of the employers’ demands, a four-year contract length, was included in the government mediator’s agreement.

The ILWU proposed a deal covering two years that would have included a wage rise of 11% in the first year and 6% in the second year, as well as an $8,000 sign-on bonus as an “inflation adjustment allowance”.  The BCMEA’s four-year proposal included wage rises of 5% in the first year, 3.5% in the second year, 3% in the third year and 2.5% in the fourth year.

Associations of capital in other industries, provincial premiers, and numerous businesses had been pushing the federal government,with increasing aggressiveness, to use back-to-work legislation against the union. O’Regan’s “forceful nudge” must be understood in that context, as the pro-capital Liberals were facing growing pressure to end the strike.

Acceptance of the deal, one that includes the employers’ demand for a four-year length, can be seen as at least a partial capitulation by the union. They clearly were not prepared to test the government on the basis of workers’ rights, as educational support workers in Ontario have done recently.

While United States ILWU president Willie Adams had declared that union workers would not work on any vessels redirected from the struck ports, union workers could not know the origin of cargo or its redirection. Five ships known to have been diverted away from Vancouver to US ports, the MSC Sara Elena, Ever Safety, COSCO Africa, Calandra and MSC Brunella, were finally worked on by US West Coast ILWU members.

At the very least, the strike has shown the importance of economic action at logistical sites and choke points in supply chains. The American Association of Railroads reported that intermodal Canadian rail was down almost 50% last week as a result of the strike compared to the previous year. Major sectors impacted included forest products, oil and petroleum products, non-metallic minerals, including sand and clay, glass products, and chemicals. About 20% of US trade arrives via the ports of Vancouver and Prince Rupert that were at the heart of the strike.

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