A BC port workers strike will have ripple effects across the economy

The BC port strike, which entered its fourth day on Tuesday, is already having ripple effects across the economy, with trucking companies grounded and consumers fearing higher prices due to dwindling supplies.

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Aaron Sander, manager of Richmond-based Sander Trucking, said about 100 employees are out of a job because containers aren’t moving in or out of the Port of Vancouver.

„It’s completely stopped,” he said. „So the container division of the company is completely shut down. All those drivers are now at home because they cannot access the ports.

More than 7,400 members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union of Canada, which handles cargo at more than 30 B.C. ports, have been on strike since Saturday. Negotiations between the union and the BC Maritime Employers Association have stalled.

The UBC Sauder School of Business professor said the ports of Metro Vancouver and Prince Rupert are „critical infrastructure” that handles a quarter of Canada’s international trade. Werner Antweiler.

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„When it shuts down, it affects the whole economy very quickly,” he said. „So, this labor dispute has a big impact. Anything more than two weeks will start to carry significant risks to the economy.

For example, businesses that rely on products shipped from Asia can quickly run out of inventory, forcing them to switch products from the Port of Seattle or other suppliers, Antweiler said. That would increase the price of the product and its cost would be passed on to the consumer, he said.

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Sandar said someone recently asked him what was in the shipping containers.

His answer: “Everything. Wherever you are sitting right now, look around you. Your sofas are in containers, tables are in there, your rugs are in there. Your product is there. Your seafood, and all kinds of food and beverages, electronics,” he said. „It’s a big impact and some people don’t fully realize how much of an impact (the strike) has on driving up the prices of these commodities.”

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Union-employer impasse over wages and the union’s concern that port automation and outsourcing could jeopardize members’ job security. About 6,000 of the unionized workers are in Metro Vancouver, 1,000 in Prince Rupert, and the rest in Nanaimo and Port Alberni.

Groups representing Canadian businesses want the federal government to intervene in the strike, with one organization calling for legislative changes to discourage future disruptions.

Designating ports and railroads as essential infrastructure for Canadian manufacturers and exporters and limiting when and where labor and other disruptions can occur will provide the stability manufacturers need.

The group, which says its members contribute 82 percent of total manufacturing output and 90 percent of Canada’s exports, estimates $500 million worth of goods are blocked each day.

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The Greater Vancouver Board of Trade is asking Ottawa to „use every tool at its disposal,” including a back-to-work law if necessary, to resume operations at the city’s port.

In 2021, the federal government passed back-to-work legislation that forced 1,150 dock workers at the Port of Montreal to end their strike at one of Canada’s busiest ports.

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Bridget Anderson, president and CEO of the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade, said in a statement, “Labor disruption at West Coast ports will fuel inflation and damage already fragile supply chains already affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. „Disastrous floods in recent years.”

BC ports move $800 million worth of cargo every day, and those goods are vital to the manufacturing, retail, agriculture, automotive and energy industries across Canada, Anderson said.

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„Domestically, businesses may experience delays in receiving essential raw materials, components and finished products when cargo cannot move efficiently through West Coast ports,” he said. „Companies have already started diverting cargo to other ports, causing loss of local economic activity and higher GHG emissions to get goods inland.”

Anderson urged the federal government to work with unions and employers to „reach a fair and swift resolution to ensure Canadians have access to essential goods and to protect Canada’s reputation as a reliable trading partner.”

The Canadian Mining Association on Tuesday expressed „serious concern” about the „damaging effects” a port strike could have on the mining industry and the broader Canadian economy.

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„BC’s ports play a vital role in Canada’s mining supply chain, serving as central hubs for transporting critical minerals and metals needed by businesses both domestically and internationally,” association CEO Pierre Gratton said in a statement. „If we cannot rely on our transportation networks to get these products to market, Canada’s reputation as a reliable producer of these products will be called into question.”

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The mining industry is a major user of Canada’s ports and the largest single shipping industry by volume for both the rail and marine systems, the association said. The majority of mining products are shipped to international customers, accounting for 22 percent of Canada’s total export value in 2021, or $127 billion.

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A spokeswoman for BC-based miner Teck Resources said the company is „taking steps to minimize any potential impact and has the flexibility to divert shipments through our other commercially contracted terminal capacity.” All deck mines continue to operate as usual, the company said.

Representatives from the BC Maritime Employers Association and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union of Canada held talks over the long weekend, before the union issued a statement saying it did not think further bargaining would lead to an agreement.

Negotiations were suspended Tuesday, pending further discussions with federal mediators, the union said.

Meanwhile, the association has been accused of „muddying the waters” by changing its stand at the last minute on a key issue.

Federal Labor Minister Seamus O’Regan said in a tweet that federal mediators „continue to support” both sides in negotiations.

„We encourage both parties to immediately return to the bargaining table and stay there until an agreement is reached,” he said. „Collective bargaining is hard work, but it’s how the best, most flexible contracts are made.”

— With files from the Canadian Press

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