Canada: Striking dock workers need working-class solidarity against ruling-class collusion

July 12, 2023
BC dockworkers strike
Rally in support of striking British Columbia dockworkers in Vancouver, Canada on July 9. Photo: @zackpattin_/Twitter

Working class solidarity is crucial in any strike. This is especially so where it involves solidarity strikes and bans by workers who refuse to scab on fellow workers who are on strike in the same industry.

Now, more than 10 days into the mass strike by 7400 Canadian dockworkers in British Columbia, it is becoming apparent that this solidarity is growing, as dockworkers on the West Coast of the United States declared their refusal to handle containers rerouted from the struck Port of Vancouver.

International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) international president Willie Adams told the US media that members of the US West Coast chapter of the union will not unload Canadian-bound cargo, “in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in ILWU Canada”.

Adams reiterated this promise at a rally in Vancouver on July 9, saying the offloading of Canada-bound cargo at ports in Tacoma, Washington, Seattle, Oakland, or Los Angeles in California “ain’t happening”.

Gary Herrera, of ILWU local 13 in California told the rally: “I promise you not one ship that leaves here will get worked on in southern California.”

Working class solidarity will be important for dockworkers to win this strike, which began on July 1. The ruling class has already openly and aggressively shown its solidarity in attempting to break the strike, with companies, employers’ associations and right-wing provincial governments across Canada pushing for the Federal government to reconvene and pass “back-to-work” legislation.

Ruling class solidarity, strike-breaking threats

By walking away from talks, the BC Maritime Employers’ Association showed it is counting on support from the government to break the strike. The Association is getting growing support from other sectors of capital and ruling provincial governments across the country.

Conservative Party provincial leaders have called on the Federal government to end the strike and force the dockworkers back to work. This first call came from Alberta’s reactionary premier Danielle Smith. The state’s transport minister, Devin Dreeshen, earlier called on the Federal government to bring in back-to-work legislation.

These calls were echoed by Ontario’s premier Doug Ford and Saskatchewan’s Scott Moe, following a premiers’ meeting on July 11. Ford used his typical hyperbole, saying: “I had one company call up and they have three containers of pork sitting there. I’m all for supporting frontline workers but you can’t hold the whole economy hostage.”

BC’s New Democratic Party-led provincial government has not followed suit. As a nominally social democratic party, for the NDP to do so would be viewed as a major betrayal and could be fatal to their re-election chances.

This is not a concern for the recently rebranded BC United Party — the official opposition in the BC Legislature. Formerly known as the BC Liberals — a provincial neoliberal coalition of liberals and conservatives — they have come out demanding government action to end the strike.

BC United members Greg Kyllo and Ben Stewart urged NDP premier David Eby to call on the Federal government to end the strike and accused Eby and Labour minister Harry Bains of remaining silent “as the strike’s effects continue to escalate”.

The Canadian Chamber of Commerce (CCC) has also ramped up its efforts to get the Federal government to end the strike. In a statement, Matthew Holmes, a CCC senior vice president said: “We can’t let this drag on. We need the government to intervene, and we need them to intervene quickly ... and force back-to-work legislation if that's required.”

The Canadian Automobile Dealers Association added its voice to the back-to-work efforts on July 10, saying the strike “could keep supply and demand out of balance much longer than originally anticipated”.

It is not just Canadian capital pushing the strikebreaking message; global capital has also joined the fray. Steve Lamar, CEO of the American Apparel and Footwear Association, told the US media that any disruption in supply chains cannot be tolerated. He said: “The strike is affecting everyone, either directly for those companies who use British Columbia as a major transit center or an e-commerce hub, or indirectly, as cargo is diverted to other ports. The Canadian government should use all its tools, including recalling Parliament, to get people back to work and goods moving again.”

As I argued previously, the strike shows the power of logistics workers, particularly in a context of “just-in-time” production. AMPCO Manufacturing complained to the government that it is struggling to help its clients meet their just-in-time manufacturing needs: “The idea is to have the goods at the point of use just before it’s needed. If we start to get backed up, we won’t have the parts and [our clients] might have workers with nothing to do.”

Just-in-time is a profit booster for capital, cutting costs in facilities and storage. However, it poses real promise for working-class action, as disruptions can bring production to a halt.

Labour action — not statements — needed

So far, support for the strikers from other unions has been largely vocal. The Canadian Labour Congress tweeted that “it stands in solidarity with the ILWU Canada in their fight to protect union jobs and secure a strong collective agreement”. It made a more forceful threat via Twitter on July 11, of “strong resistance from our entire movement”. The BC Federation of Labour (of which I am a member) also stated its support through Twitter.

Such expressions are important for striking workers. One ILWU Canada member told Seatrade Maritime News: “Canadian West coast Longshore workers were buoyed by support from their American sister and brother longshore workers.”

But the promise of resistance must be made real — and soon.

With capital and its advocates in provincial governments ramping up their actions to end the strike and secure back-to-work legislation, labour will need to step up its actions, beyond words of support and statements of solidarity.

A rally of several hundred people in Vancouver showing support for the dockworkers was good to see. That representatives from unions in other countries, including Australia and New Zealand, spoke in support of the strikers, was also encouraging. This will not be enough though. Words and symbolic gatherings will need to be converted to real, direct action. So far this action has been slow to come.

Adams has suggested workers in other countries meet ships coming to their docks and let them know that they are united with Canadian strikers. Such solidarity actions globally could be significant. We have seen dockworkers show such solidarity in movements for Palestinian resistance and Black Lives Matter.

Even the promised solidarity by dockworkers at US ports will have challenges. For example, it could be difficult for the ILWU to identify containers that had their final destinations changed, away from Canada, because the union’s members do not have access to container information for supposed security reasons.

Local social movements, including environmental, anti-police and anti-pipelines, could bring some of their experiences in direct action to efforts in solidarity with this struggle. The growing readiness of governments to legislate against social struggles, or worse, use preemptive laws against economic disruption, threaten all movements against capital.

During the Vancouver rally, the ILWU warned Ottawa against back-to-work legislation or imposing a contract, saying it would shatter “labour peace” in BC. ILWU Canada president Rob Ashton told journalists: “Labour peace in this industry comes from government staying out of the business between a union and their employers. The federal government must stay out of our business.”

This labour peace has served to weaken working-class movements and allowed capital to go on the offensive (through automation, layoffs, etc) during the COVID-19 outbreak and since. It will need to be ended — on working-class terms — as capital is certainly ready to break it.

Rank-and-file committees, pushing against union leaderships’ focus on labour peace will be needed and will need to be defended. A loss here will further embolden capital as it targets rail workers, airline workers, teachers and public sector workers — as we have seen in other struggles recently.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.