Canada’s labour minister says he is taking action to restore long-term stability at B.C.’s ports after unionized workers rejected a tentative agreement late Friday night.
Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan issued a statement Saturday saying he had directed the Canada Industrial Relations Board to determine whether the union’s decision “has eliminated the possibility of a negotiated resolution” to ongoing labour strife on Canada’s west coast.
“If the board determines that to be the case, I have directed them to either impose a new collective agreement on the parties or impose final binding arbitration to resolve outstanding terms of the collective agreement,” O’Regan said.
The minister’s action comes less than 24 hours after the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Canada announced that its longshore division had “said no to the terms of the settlement,” throwing B.C.’s ports back into turmoil.
“Today we call on our direct employers to come to the table and negotiate something that works for our members and the industry,” the union said in a brief statement Friday night.
The union has been without a contract since March 31, when its previous deal with the BC Maritime Employers Association expired.
Negotiations on a new contract began late last year, but have been fraught, ultimately culminating in a 13-day strike action by the union.
That action ended on July 13, when both sides initially accepted a deal put forward by a federally appointed mediator.
On July 18, however, ILWU leadership announced that it had rejected the mediator’s terms, and picket lines returned to B.C. ports.
That action proved to be short-lived, as the CIRB ruled the resumption of the strike illegal, because it lacked a 72-hour notice.
While the union objected to this ruling and promised to appeal, it ceased picketing and issued a new strike notice, before rescinding that notice and promising a membership vote on the deal.
Now, that deal has been rejected by the union’s full membership, leaving the parties once again at an impasse.
In its own statement late Friday night, the BCMEA said it was “disappointed” to learn that union members had rejected the federally mediated agreement.
“ILWU Canada’s inability to ratify a fair and balanced recommended tentative agreement has left Canadians, businesses and the entire supply chain in a perilous state that has cost billions and will further hurt affordability and increase costs for Canadians,” the employer said.
The union has not publicly discussed the terms of the contract its members rejected, but the BCMEA claims the four-year deal would have increased wages by a total of 19.2 per cent.
It also would have provided a signing bonus of $1.48 per hour for each employee and increased the “modernization and mechanization retirement lump sum payment” by 18.5 per cent.
The use of contractors for maintenance work has been a sticking point for workers in previous rounds of negotiation, as have concerns about automation.
The BCMEA maintains that it has worked to address these concerns at the bargaining table, and criticized the ILWU Canada’s “erratic actions” over the last month.
“Regrettably, ILWU’s rejection once again leaves businesses, Canadians and all those who depend on a stable, well-functioning supply chain hanging in the balance,” the employer said, adding that it “awaits further direction from the federal government.”
“Canada’s international reputation as a stable trading partner has been jeopardized and it can no longer tolerate further ambiguity and instability to the nation’s supply chain network.”
CALLS FOR BACK-TO-WORK LEGISLATION
While the BCMEA stopped short of openly calling for back-to-work legislation, other parties did so within hours of Friday’s announcement.
“Enough is enough,” said Goldy Hyder, president and CEO of the Business Council of Canada, in a statement Saturday morning.
“It is imperative that our political leaders from all parties work together to reconvene Parliament and pass back-to-work legislation without delay.”
Bridgitte Anderson, the president and CEO of the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade, also called for federal intervention “to ensure that our ports stay open.”
“It is also clear that the federal government needs additional tools to facilitate lasting agreements when labour disruptions affect the entire economy,” Anderson said in a statement Saturday.
Canfor, a company that temporarily shut down operations at its Prince George Northwood pulp mill as a result of the port workers’ strike action, released an emailed statement to CTV News.
“We are very disappointed that the ILWU has rejected the tentative agreement proposed by the senior federal mediator. We are once again facing the potential of job action at B.C.’s ports, which creates significant uncertainty for Canfor Pulp’s operations, our employees and their families,” said Michelle Ward, vice president of corporate communications for the company.
“We support the federal government in intervening and urge all parties to quickly resolve this labour dispute.”
Last time the union rejected the deal, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau convened the “incident response group” to discuss the situation at B.C. ports.
This high-level dedicated panel of cabinet ministers and senior officials is the federal government’s dedicated emergency committee that meets in the event of national crises or events that have major implications for the country.
The group is “responsible for co-ordinating a prompt federal response to an incident, and making fast, effective decisions,” and has previously been convened to address the COVID-19 pandemic response, the “Freedom Convoy” protests, and Russia’s invasion in Ukraine.
With files from CTVNews.ca’s Rachel Aiello and The Canadian Press
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