Port workers in British Columbia are no longer on strike, the federal labour minister’s office says, and are expected to be back at work Thursday.
That was the office’s interpretation after the port workers’ union removed its new 72-hour strike notice Wednesday evening hours after it was issued and without explanation, sparking speculation about what will come next in the latest round of strike action.
With no word from either the union or the employer on what was behind the removal, a spokesperson for Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan told Global News the office understands the strike is now over, and hopes the union will ratify the current tentative deal on the table.
That tentative agreement between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Canada (ILWU) and the B.C. Maritime Employers Association (BCMEA) was proposed by a meditator who received direction from Ottawa to table the offer, which brought an end to 13 days of strike action last week.
But the union’s leadership rejected that offer Tuesday before bringing it to a full member vote, and by Wednesday members were briefly back on the picket line.
Earlier Wednesday, the Canada Industrial Relations Board ruled the ILWU stop its job action as it did not provide 72 hours notice, prompting the union to issue one that set a Saturday deadline for strike action. But hours later, the ILWU announced it had removed it. It did not explain why and did not respond to follow-up requests for comment.
The BCMEA confirmed it had been made aware the notice was removed, but declined to provide further clarity.
“The past 24 hours have demonstrated that this continues to be a fluid and unpredictable situation,” the employer said in a brief statement. “We will communicate as appropriate with key stakeholders as we receive clarification.”
Shortly before the notice was removed, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau convened the Incident Response Group to discuss the strike, including a potential federal response.
According to a summary of the meeting released by the Prime Minister’s Office, Trudeau “stressed the critical importance of resuming operations in our ports as soon as possible,” adding Canadians “cannot face further disruption.”
The Incident Response Group is a group of cabinet ministers and senior government officials who can meet to discuss a range of serious incidents facing the country. They have previously gathered for discussions on matters including the 2020 railroad blockades, the COVID-19 pandemic, the invasion of Ukraine and the Wagner Group mutiny in Russia.
During the meeting, Trudeau sought advice from ministers and senior officials on how to bring a quick end to the strike and to “pursue all available options to ensure the stability of our supply chains and to protect Canadian jobs and our economy,” the PMO said. There was no indication that any final decision was made Wednesday on next steps.
Trudeau later spoke with B.C. Premier David Eby about the strike and vowed to keep working to prevent further economic impacts, the PMO said.
The tumultuous day began with port workers already back on the picket lines, which prompted the BCMEA to file a complaint with the CIRB. The board sided with the employer that the job action was unlawful without proper notice, prompting O’Regan to call the strike “illegal.”
The union countered that it did not need to issue a new notice as it had not officially ended its strike, but had merely “suspended” picketing while it considered the mediated deal.
The ILWU’s statement warned “government interference” such as the CIRB’s order would only lengthen the strike. The CIRB is an independent tribunal.
“The re-issuance of strike notice shows that we will be facing a repeat of actions by the ILWU Leadership that will continue to grind operations to a halt at Canada’s largest ports,” BCMEA said in a statement after the notice was issued.
“The economy, businesses, and Canadians cannot withstand another unnecessary and reckless labour disruption by ILWU.”
ILWU members were set to walk off the job on Saturday at 9 a.m. PT should a deal not be reached, before the notice was removed.
The BCMEA said that the ILWU’s internal caucus leadership rejected the “fair and comprehensive package” that was proposed by the mediator.
BCMEA said the proposed four-year collective agreement included “considerable hikes in wages and benefits” amounting to a compounded 19.2 per cent wage increase over that time — well above the approximate 10 per cent increase over the past three years.
The proposed increases, it added, were also “generally above the established norm of recent private and public sector union settlements in British Columbia and Canada.”
In a statement, the ILWU said that with “the record profits that the BCMEA’s member companies have earned over the last few years, the employers have not addressed the cost-of-living issues that our workers have faced over the last couple of years as all workers have.”
It added the proposed collective agreement was too lengthy given “today’s uncertain times.”
“We must be able to readdress the uncertainty in the world’s financial markets for our members,” the union’s statement said.
Federal action called for
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre blamed the strike’s resumption on Trudeau’s “total incompetence,” saying he caused the job action by “raising the cost of living.”
“Justin Trudeau must do his job and end this strike immediately because of the massive cost to workers, consumers and businesses,” he told reporters in Niagara Falls, Ont., on Wednesday.
“We’re calling on him to deliver a plan (and) end this strike within the next 24 hours.”
Transport Minister Omar Alghabra told reporters in Newfoundland Wednesday said while the government believes in the collective bargaining process, he was disappointed by the outcome and that Ottawa is now “exploring options.” He did not elaborate as to what those options were.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said in a statement Wednesday that while it can be a challenging process to get to a deal sometimes, “we must not lose sight of what is at stake for B.C. port workers but also for every worker who relies on this process to ensure their voices are always heard in negotiations with powerful employers.”
“Instead of throwing up their hands in frustration and making threats, the federal government should be urging both sides back to the table to talk right now,” he said.
A federal government official with knowledge of the situation told Global News that all options are on the table including recalling Parliament, but that the government’s priority is speed and which options are fastest. The official said union leadership has denied members the chance to vote on the proposal.
Recalling Parliament to introduce and pass back-to-work legislation would take several days.
Regardless, stakeholders have been quick to call on Ottawa to step in.
“I don’t think the government has much choice now but to legislate them back, to be honest with you,” said John Corey, president of the Freight Management Association of Canada.
Workers were off the job from July 1 to 13, which cost roughly $10 billion in lost trade, the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade estimates. Shipments were halted in and out of about 30 ports in B.C., including Canada’s largest, the Port of Vancouver.
“Thirteen days was bad enough; it’s going to take until October to clear that through the supply chain. And if this goes back on, not only is it going to jam up the supply chain, it makes Canada look like a laughing stock,” Corey said.
In its own statement, the B.C. Chamber of Commerce said it was “profoundly disappointed” the union had rejected the deal.
Alberta Premier Danielle Smith, who has been vocal about the labour dispute since it began, posted to Twitter calling for the Liberal government to reconvene Parliament and legislate an end to the dispute.
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business and the Retail Council of Canada also called on Ottawa Wednesday to pass back-to-work legislation to end the strike.
In an open letter addressed to Trudeau, Poilievre, Singh and Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet, Business Council of Canada president and CEO Goldy Hyder urged the leaders to work together to resolve the strike “immediately” with back-to-work legislation.
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“Canadians expect their elected officials to make decisions that produce the best results for the country,” Hyder wrote, pointing to the ripple effects the strike will bring to the Canadian economy and consumer prices.
In 2021, the Tories supported the minority Liberals in passing back-to-work legislation to end a brief strike at the Port of Montreal that also restricted the flow of millions worth in goods.
A spokesperson for Poilievre’s office would not speculate on whether the Conservatives would support such legislation in this case.
“We have not been presented with any potential legislation and cannot say how we would vote on something without seeing it first,” Sebastian Skamski told Global News.
Singh said the NDP — which has an agreement in place to support the minority Liberals in passing key legislation — would not support a back-to-work proposal.
“New Democrats will always stand up for workers who are defending their rights and fighting for a better future for their families and communities,” he said.