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No end to port strike as truckers balk at reform plan

Vanterm port terminal near downtown Vancouver normally sends a steady stream of containers onto trucks for distribution across the Lower Mainland. - Jeff Nagel / Black Press
Vanterm port terminal near downtown Vancouver normally sends a steady stream of containers onto trucks for distribution across the Lower Mainland.
— image credit: Jeff Nagel / Black Press

A port strike by container truck drivers is continuing after union leaders accused provincial and federal government representatives of presenting their plan to end the dispute as a non-negotiable take-it-or-leave-it package.

The parties met late Sunday but emerged without a resolution to restore full port shipments.

Port Metro Vancouver CEO Robin Silvester applied more pressure on drivers to accept the 14-point plan unveiled last Thursday, saying those who refuse to return to work may lose future port work.

"A continued refusal by some truckers to provide such service is likely to result in suspension or termination of their permits by Port Metro Vancouver," Silvester said Sunday.

Such threats are not helpful in acheiving a solution, responded Gavin McGarrigle, B.C. area director for Unifor-Vancouver Container Truckers Association.

"One of the first things we heard is the government said this was not a negotiating session," McGarrigle said following Sunday's meeting.

"Even though we're prepared to negotiate in good faith it appears that door was closed. Our members will remain on the picket line and continue to protest."

Nearly 400 Unifor-represented container truckers have been on strike since March 10, while a thousand more non-union owner-operators with the United Trucking Association halted work Feb. 26.

UTA representatives say they also have questions and concerns with the proposed action plan.

The federal-provincial plan would require an immediate 10 per cent jump in rates paid for each container moved, as well as a review of other hourly wages and fuel surcharges with changes to kick in by mid-2015.

Terminals will also have to pay truckers $25 per container when they wait more than two hours to load.

But McGarrigle said the wait fee is inadequate.

"Down the road if you're waiting three hours that's actually less than minimum wage," he said.

Long unpaid waits to load their trucks at the region's four container terminals are a key complaint of drivers, who also say reforms are needed to end rate undercutting by some in the industry.

SFU urban studies professor Peter Hall, an expert on the dispute, called the plan a "serious attempt" to solve the long-running problems, but the lack of specifics mean truckers are being asked to put much trust in the rollout.

Bolstered provincial audits and other measures, including a whistleblower provision, are pledged to ensure port-licensed trucking firms abide by industry rates and that fuel surcharges flow through to drivers.

Port Metro Vancouver would reinstate port licences of truckers it had suspended who don't face criminal charges for alleged violence or vandalism, and end a lawsuit against the United Truckers Association.

Initial reforms are pledged by June 15, including steps to control the proliferation of licensed trucks and to introduce new licence charges that fund enforcement and expansion of the port's GPS tracking system for trucks.

A pilot project to extend hours at port terminals is also promised this spring, allowing limited evening trips – which may be subsidized through industry fees – with an aim of reducing port congestion and lineups during the day.

Federal and provincial officials have urged drivers to return to work while the plan is implemented.

B.C. Transportation Minister Todd Stone warned last Thursday the port is "down on its knees" due to the dispute, with mills and plants closing and ships preparing to reroute to Seattle.

The strike is blocking the normal trade route for almost $900 million worth of cargo per week.

Stone said employees at pulp mills, sawmills and other shipping-dependent businesses are starting to be laid off because their goods can't be shipped. There are 90,000 people whose jobs depend on the port, and 60,000 of them are in B.C., he said.

Half of the containers move through the port by rail and are not affected by the strike.

Some truckers have continued to work, with container truck shipments running at 10 to 25 per cent of normal, some with a security escort.

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