Breakdown in Canadian West Coast Port Negotiations as Sides Dig In

Canada dockworkers strike
Laden containerships are waiting as the strike entered its fourth day (ILWU photos)

Published Jul 4, 2023 1:23 PM by The Maritime Executive

Negotiations in the now four-day-old dockworkers strike at Canada’s West Coast ports broke down on Monday, July 3. With both sides firmly entrenched and issuing strongly worded statements, the prospects of government intervention are being raised while the union strongly insists the issues must be settled at the bargaining table for long-term stability.

The strike began Saturday morning, July 1, impacting more than 30 ports and 49 terminals across British Columbia, including Vancouver and Prince Rupert, which are Canada’s first and third largest ports. The contract expired at the end of March with the union citing issues related to wages, automation, and the outsourcing of work. Negotiations had continued at the end of last week and into the weekend and had been expected to resume on Monday after a brief pause so both sides could get rest after a 33-hour marathon session.

The talks appear to have broken down primarily on the issue of outsourcing. The British Columbia Maritime Employers Association (BCMEA) says under the previous collective bargaining agreement, the International Longshore & Warehouse Union Canada exclusively supplies the labor force but BCMEA argues the union “has been consistently unable to fulfill the trades work they have jurisdiction over.” The union’s position is that the new agreement must “stop the erosion of jurisdiction and the extensive use of contractors.”

“With the regular assistance of the FMCS (federal mediators) we have moved substantially from our original position re Regular Maintenance,” Rob Ashton, President of ILWU Canada said in a statement. “When we finally had a document that was largely agreed upon as of continuous movement by the union on this one position the association decided to change their position.” 

The union contends that BCMEA has drawn a line in the sand and ended the progress. They contend BCMEA is deliberately sabotaging the progress. On the issue of wages, the ILWU cites the seven percent increase in Canada’s minimum wage saying its members are entitled to similar increases. They cite the strong profits the terminals made during the surge in volumes over the past years and the efforts of the dockworkers to keep the supply chains moving.


Picket lines formed at more than 30 ports across British Columbia (ILWU photo)


“ILWU Canada has left no further avenues to reach a deal. The BCMEA has gone as far as possible on core issues,” the association said when it walked away from negotiations announcing they were at an impasse. The employers’ association contends the union is trying to expand its scope and redefine Regular Maintenance Work with a position that would result in “immediate and significant impacts on terminal operations.” They called the compensation demands “unreasonable,” saying the union went out on strike over demands that are “outside any reasonable framework for settlement.”

“BCMEA is of the view that a continuation of bargaining at this time is not going to produce a collective agreement,” the employers’ association said in the statement released on Monday. “ILWU Canada needs to decide if they are going to continue this strike with no hope of settlement, or significantly modify their position so a fair and balanced deal can be reached.”

Major ocean carriers have been holding off rerouting vessels but with the union and employers growing more entrenched economists and businesses are increasingly suggesting the strike will impact the entire North American supply chain. U.S. shippers especially in the mid-west use the Canadian ports and suggestions that vessels might divert to U.S. ports ranging from Seattle and Tacoma to California are being met by reports that U.S. union members might refuse to work rerouted containers in sympathy with their Canadian colleagues.

“The Canadian Chamber of Commerce is urging the Government of Canada to immediately intervene in order to prevent further disruption to Canada’s supply chains and limit the impact on Canadians, who are bearing the cost of inflationary pressures,” said Robin Guy, Vice President and Deputy Leader of Government Relations for the Chamber. “The government should immediately recall Parliament to pass back-to-work legislation to protect the livelihoods of Canadian workers and the health of Canadian businesses affected by disruption to the more than C$800 million (US$600 million) worth of cargo flowing through West Coast ports every single day.”

Greg Wilson of the Retail Council of Canada stopped short of calling for a back-to-work order. In an interview with CBC, he said the government should put pressure on the negotiating parties. He is calling for providing incentives necessary to achieve a settlement. The Greater Vancouver Board of Trade is also asking Ottawa to "use every tool at its disposal" to ensure a deal is struck to resume activity at city's port, including if necessary, back-to-work legislation.

“If we do not seriously address the root problems of Canada’s transportation network disruptions, and eliminate the incentives to time and game labor disruptions to inflict maximum economic pain, then it will just continue to be Groundhog Day – where every six months a disruption occurs, and manufacturers and Canadians are left to pay the economic costs,” said Dennis Darby, President and CEO of  Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters. The group said the federal government understands what is at stake, and as such they are urging Ottawa to intervene now to reassure manufacturers that they will not bear the brunt of a labor dispute that is beyond their control. CME is also using this strike to call on the federal government to work with industry on legislative reforms that will discourage future disruptions to Canada’s critical trade infrastructure. 

The union has previously said that the government should not intervene and that the disputes must be settled through negotiations for labor stability. On Monday, Ashton wrote in his statement, “We hope the association is not hiding behind the threat of back-to-work legislation and binding arbitration to avoid engaging in bargaining with the union.” He implored BCMEA to get back to the table.

BCMEA raised the possibility of submitting the dispute to government arbitration even before the strike began. So far, the federal government has only said that it wanted the negotiations to proceed quickly to a settlement. The Canadian Parliament is currently not in session and not scheduled to resume sitting till mid-September, meaning it would require days to recall the members and then to draft and pass any measures.