As negotiations continue between B.C. longshore workers and their employers to prevent a strike that could begin Monday, Canada’s retail industry is crossing its fingers that a deal can be reached.
That’s because the effective closure of two Port of Vancouver container terminals could cause devastating ripple effects across the country, including employee layoffs and major backups on deliveries of goods.
Greg Wilson, B.C.’s director of government relations with the Retail Council of Canada, said Saturday that the hardest-hit sector will be smaller mom-and-pop stores that aren’t able to find a way around the terminal closure.
“The largest retailers all have a lot of supply-chain professionals who are adept at dealing with problems,” he said.
“Mom-and-pop retailers might import one-third of a container a month or a quarter. If that container is stuck somewhere, they don’t have the ability to get more product around through a different shipping line.”
Wilson said rerouting goods is possible, including sending ships to U.S. ports for pickup, but added that would not be a viable long-term option and could damage the reputation of B.C.’s ports.
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“We’re obviously Canadians so we cheer on the Canadian ports because they employ lots of British Columbians who shop at our stores,” he said.
The B.C. Maritime Employers Association (BCMEA) said Friday that it has been informed that Global Container Terminals locations in Delta and Vancouver could be behind picket lines on Monday morning.
The dispute involves about 6,000 members of the International Longshore & Warehouse Union Canada, who voted 98.4 per cent in favour of supporting strike action earlier this month.
The union couldn’t be reached for comment on Sunday but has suggested the job action comes down to fears surrounding automation at the port.
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BCMEA chair Jeff Scott said on Friday that both sides remain at the bargaining table with the help of federal mediation services in the hope of avoiding a labour dispute because they recognize the significant economic impact it could cause.
Wilson said he and the council’s members are hopeful this strike won’t get to that point and can be resolved quickly.
“From the largest to the smallest, our members have told us this is a critical issue for them,” he said. “This is going to impact their ability to keep goods on the shelves for consumers, and it will impact consumer prices.”
The Port of Vancouver and the Port of Prince Rupert receive two-thirds of Canada’s container traffic combined, Wilson said, and Vancouver’s port alone sees $180 million in container traffic daily.
A Port of Vancouver analysis conducted on behalf of the BCMEA regarding a possible labour disruption found that the effect on cargo would be about $540 million a day.
The loss of that traffic could see temporary employee losses, he added, affecting up to 7,500 daily workers immediately.
“2.1 million Canadians depend on retail for their employment,” Wilson said. “It’s critical to those people. They also want to provide the customers with the best experience in stores, with the best products at the best prices.”
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Wilson said merchandise trade alone represents 52 per cent of Canada’s GDP, adding that he’s confident the federal government will be paying attention and will ensure any strike in Vancouver will be a short one.
Ottawa has intervened in labour disputes before, most recently passing back-to-work legislation that effectively ended last fall’s Canada Post workers’ strike.
The bill sparked immediate blowback from the postal workers union, which had not yet reached a deal with Canada Post when workers were ordered back and is still in arbitration today.
—With files from the Canadian Press