Original Published on Oct 13, 2022 at 01:51

Deep Inside the Strike Shaking Vancouver’s Port

By Zak Vescera, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

On the eve of a strike that would paralyze a big part of his company, Ian McIver gave the Canadian Merchant Service Guild what he called the  company’s final offer. 

“If this offer is not  accepted, it will NOT be improved,” the Seaspan president told members  of the guild in an Aug. 24 email. “In fact, it could well be less.”

Six weeks later, the dispute between  Seaspan and the union representing its 165 tugboat captains and  engineers has paralyzed the company’s North Vancouver shipyard and  drydock. 

Roughly 1,000 workers from other unions —  who are not themselves on strike — have refused to cross picket lines  set up by the tugboat workers, meaning they have been off the job and  without pay for more than a month. 

A battle over whether that  union action is legal continues in two separate regulatory bodies. And  an end to the dispute is not yet in sight. 

Seaspan’s director of  communications Ali Hounsell says other tugboat companies are struggling  to deal with all the business previously handled by Seaspan, whose  70-strong fleet of tugboats and barges represents the largest such  operation on Canada’s West Coast.

Chamber of Shipping of British Columbia has warned  the strike is increasing congestion at the Port of Vancouver, straining  supply chains and tarnishing Vancouver’s reputation as a home port for  cruise lines and a primary gateway to Asian markets. 

Workers, meanwhile, say Seaspan’s initial  proposal did not adequately compensate them for rising costs and  contained changes to staffing composition and scheduling that would have  made the job less safe. The Guild has declined to comment publicly on  the dispute, but The Tyee has obtained internal memos from the union  outlining its position in detail as well as court records that show  exactly what Seaspan put on the table before the strike began. 

The result is a six-week dispute that  threatens shipping and has paralyzed one of the country’s largest  shipbuilding operations with no clear end in sight. 

Anatomy of a strike

Two months before the strike began, Seaspan  was already bracing for it — and telling other union staff it expected  them to show up for work if and when a picket line went up. 

On June 24, Seaspan executive Scott Shaw  wrote to Walter Gerlach, a spokesperson for a group of unions working at  the Vancouver Shipyards, telling him the company expected them to come  in for work if the guild went on strike.

“Walter, our interest is in diffusing the  potential for conflict between Marine employees exercising their legal  right to strike and [shipyard] employees that want to attend work and  earn income but may be conflicted about crossing a picket line,” Shaw  wrote. 

Gerlach said the unions — who represent  hundreds of welders, shipbuilders, electricians and other workers at the  Shipyards — wouldn’t cross any picket line. 

“It is the position of the [unions] that our union members have the right to honour a legal picket line,” Gerlach said. 

Seaspan has tried to challenge that  position. The company twice went to the provincial Labour Relations  Board, arguing a picket line started by the tugboat workers — who are  federally regulated — had no bearing on employees working under  provincial law. 

The board rejected that argument, which  Seaspan is now asking it to reconsider. The company also went to the  B.C. Supreme Court with a similar argument, without success. 

York University professor Sara  Slinn says that is thanks in part to an “unusual” part of B.C.’s Labour  Relations Code that says union members can refuse to cross another  union’s picket line without it being declared a strike.

“By putting up a picket line, there’s  what’s called a signalling effect to other unions and other union  members — a call to solidarity. Which includes not crossing,” Slinn  said. She added such a line can give a striking union leverage since it  could affect other large groups of employees. 

“They are trying to muster as much  bargaining power as they have with the employer through their economic  weapons of strike, but also picketing,” Slinn said. 

That protection does not exist in the  federal labour code. “Ports are always messy,” Slinn said, “because you  have both provincially and federally regulated [workers] transiting  through the same space.” 

The guild’s employees, for example, are  federally regulated. So are members of the International Longshore &  Warehouse Union Local 400 who work as deckhands on those same tugboats.  

Those workers have also refused to report  for work, leading to Seaspan filing a complaint to the Canada Industrial  Relations Board. 

Last week, the board handed down what  Hounsell called a “perplexing” decision. The members of ILWU 400 were  indeed engaging in an illegal strike, the board said, but it would not  order them back to work. They have not yet released reasons for that  decision. 

ILWU Local 400 president Jason Woods says that means it is “status quo” for now. 

“My members will not cross the picket line,” Woods said. 

Hounsell said the precedent set is worrying for Seaspan, who plan to appeal and challenge the regulators’ decisions. 

“We’re disappointed that in spite of  acknowledging that it is an illegal strike that there was no effort to  use the mechanisms available to the board under the code to get those  people back to work,” Hounsell said. 

In court filings, the company has expressed  fears the strike could permanently damage the reputation of the  business and push shipyard workers on the picket line to quit their jobs  in search of other work. 

“There is a significant risk that Vancouver  Shipyards’ unionized employees will seek work with other employers if  they continue to be unable to work at Vancouver Shipyards,” the company  wrote in court filings last month. 

The company also said the picketing would  “significantly impact Vancouver Shipyards’ ability to meet its  contractual obligations to its customers,” which include billion-dollar  projects for the Royal Canadian Navy and the Canadian Coast Guard. 

“It’s a competitive labour market as it  is,” Hounsell said. “If we have people who can’t work and find work  elsewhere, we’re not sure how many of them are going to come back.”

Hounsell said the company still hopes to  reach a negotiated deal to replace the workers’ last collective  agreement, which expired in 2019.

But it is considering other options, she said, including selling the tugboat arm of the company. 

“Now that’s an extreme way out, but it’s something that’s definitely on the table,” she said. 

‘Final offer’

The heart of the dispute is still the  negotiations between the guild and Seaspan, which have been shrouded in  mystery until The Tyee reported key aspects of the talks this week. 

The Tyee has now obtained internal correspondence that lays out the two sides’ positions in much greater detail. 

McIver told guild members that the company  had proposed a seven-year contract spanning from 2019 — when the last  deal expired — until 2025 with wage increases between two and three per  cent in each year. They also promised a ratification bonus of $2,000.  Workers covered by the current agreement are paid between $93,200 and $119,400 a year.

McIver wrote that the company’s tugboat and  barge business — the largest on Canada’s West Coast — was facing  growing competition from smaller companies. 

“The parties must carefully consider the  industry in which they work and the economic conditions they confront,”  McIver said in the email. 

The union has not responded to requests for  comment from media outlets. A memo distributed to members on the picket  line instructs them to not speak to media. 

But the Tyee has obtained internal memos  prepared by the union’s business agent, Trevor Lang, which lay out the  union’s position and sticking points at the bargaining table. 

In a Sept. 28 memo to members, Lang said  Seaspan has also proposed removing engineers from some tugboat crews.  Seaspan notes that’s legal, but the union believes it could threaten  jobs and worker safety. 

The two parties are also at odds about a  proposed “pager system” that would change how tugboat shifts are  scheduled. Lang, in his memo, said under the system the company could  require employees to work long, difficult shifts at the employer’s  direction without adequate time for breaks.  

“The Guild cannot entertain this proposal  from the employer, at a time when the Employer is engaged in LNG, oil,  chemical and tanker escorts in B.C. Waters,” Lang wrote. 

The employer, in its own memo to members,  said the pager system would mostly be used in new contracts with  customers and that it was fully compliant with labour standards and  laws.  

“Despite repeated invitations, the CMSG’s  bargaining committee never engaged in constructive discussions on the  pager system or a similar arrangement that would have provided  operational flexibility to win new business while fairly compensating  crew members,” McIver wrote on Sept. 8. 

Hounsell said the company has since made  what it calls “significant improvement” to their previous final offer.  The two parties sat down with federal mediators last week but were  unable to reach an agreement. 

The pain is felt on both sides. The  company, Hounsell said, is unable to proceed on major projects at the  shipyard and worries about broader impacts in the port, the busiest in  Canada.

“We’re starting to see and hear some of the impacts that are happening around the port,” Hounsell said. 

Unions have given no sign they will stop  respecting the picket line, but more than 1,000 workers have now gone at  least four weeks without guaranteed pay. 

Hounsell said the company’s strong preference is still to reach a deal at the table.

“Seaspan is working towards a negotiated  agreement. That’s what our preference would be. We think it ends up in  the best deal for everyone,” Hounsell said.

This item reprinted with permission from   The Tyee   Vancouver, British Columbia
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