Business

Port shipping may be crippled by tug boat strike

Seaspan tugs shepherd a large container ship inbound to Deltaport. - Port Metro Vancouver photo
Seaspan tugs shepherd a large container ship inbound to Deltaport.
— image credit: Port Metro Vancouver photo

Unionized tug boat crews are threatening to go on strike against employer Seaspan in a move that could cripple shipping through several B.C. ports.

Local 400 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union holds a strike vote Tuesday and tug boat captains and engineers represented by the Canadian Merchant Service Guild hold their own strike vote Wednesday.

Union leaders say Seaspan is attempting to impose harsh concessions on their more than 400 members following the expiry of their contract last fall.

Local 400 president Terry Engler said crews may be deemed under the federal labour code to accept the new contract if they show up for work, adding the union won't take that chance.

"Seaspan will have picket lines up before June 9 if it continues down this reckless road," Engler said.

Seaspan tugs aid freighters, tankers and other vessels entering and exiting port terminals in Vancouver Harbour, at Deltaport, in Victora and elsewhere on the B.C. coast. A strike could disrupt container imports, as well as exports of oil, sulphur, potash, lumber and coal.

The new seven-year contract would provide one per cent pay increases in each of the first four years, followed by 1.5 per cent each year after that.

Engler said the contentious terms include Seaspan's aim of slashing its benefits costs by more than half and gaining more flexibility to contract work out or revise shift scehduling.

In an emailed statement, Seaspan CEO Jonathan Whitford said the company is no longer cost competitive against "aggressive" rivals and the revised employment terms are "necessary changes to improve our competitive position and ensure our future viability."

Whitford said savings from the new contract would either flow to customers via lower rates or be reinvested into the fleet, which needs an injection of more than $500 million.

The strike votes come on the heels of a 28-day strike earlier this year by container truckers.

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