Left out in the rain

by Derek Clouthier

VANCOUVER, B.C. – Container trucking companies say an absence of consultation with regards to rate hikes was the prominent factor in the decision to file a lawsuit against Port Metro Vancouver and the federal government.

In total, 33 carriers have filed suit claiming that the federal government does not have the right to impose retroactive pay hikes on companies after the work in question had been completed and appropriately paid for.

Suzanne Wentt owns Indian River Transport, one of the carriers that are involved in the lawsuit, and said that her drivers were paid the mandated rates, and says the retroactive piece that was inserted into the legislation is “morally and ethically wrong,” as she was first notified of the new rate schedule 30 days after drivers returned to work following a 2014 walkout over rate negotiations, and that a few weeks later, rates were changed to be retroactive to April 1, 2014.

Wentt added that there is also a rate sheet for ‘off dock rates,’ which is when companies pick up and return empty containers to depots other than the marine terminal.

“When the B.C. Container Trucking Act was signed in December, they added a clause and a new rate schedule for off dock moves that the owners had no knowledge of, however, it was mandated retroactive to April 1, 2014,” Wentt said. “It was very clear that it trumped collective agreements and we had to pay.”

Wentt said her company, like others at Port Metro Vancouver, had already performed and paid for the work and could not simply go back to the customer and ask for more money to recoup the lost revenue.

“Can you imagine if you shopped at Save-On-Foods from April until December and then in December receive a call telling you, ‘Sorry, but there was an increase on all your purchases of 5% from April 1 to Dec. 19 and we need you to come in and give us $100,000 to cover those increases?’” Wentt asked. “Would you run right down to the store and pay it, or would you try to reason with them that this was not fair or just? And while you don’t have an issue paying the increase on a go-forward basis, your issue is with the retroactive piece.”

Wentt said this is essentially the position the government has put container trucking companies in at Port Metro Vancouver.

And though there was some headway being made in an effort to resolve the matter, Wentt said that has fallen by the wayside.

“All of the trucking companies thought this was unfair and tried to work through the former (Office of the B.C. Container Trucking Commissioner) commissioner Andy Smith to try and get some resolution and, unfortunately, he stepped down late last year and the work that had been done was vacated,” Wentt said. “The interim commissioner had no appetite to deal with this, so there was nothing left to do but file a lawsuit.”

Israel Chafetz is a lawyer representing some of the companies involved in the lawsuit, and said in an e-mail to Truck West that the retroactive pay came as a surprise to his clients and should never have been imposed.

“The trucking companies signed contracts with customers based on certain trucking costs,” he said. “After all the work was done, billed and paid, the government decided to increase the cost of the completed work retroactively and those costs cannot be recovered.”

Chafetz also claimed that Unifor, a union representing several workers at the port, is not as large a player in the matter as it lets on to be.

“Unifor represents only a small minority of trucking companies employing a small minority of truckers,” Chafetz said. “In fact, their influence is becoming less significant.”

Wentt agrees with this statement.

“Unifor’s presence in the trucking community is minor at best,” she said. “Their membership a few years ago was in excess of 600. It is now somewhere between 150 and 200 and decreasing every day versus 1,700 trucks currently operating on the port.”

Unifor, however, continues to say that the companies involved in the lawsuit are fighting the wage floor, which is causing instability at the port and is an affront on the vast majority of trucking companies who have paid the fair wage and are “prepared to live with it.”

“Undercutting in this sector has always been a problem, and now we see clearly which truck company owners want to continue to drive wages down,” said Gavin McGarrigle, Unifor’s B.C. area director. “Shippers now need to play their part toward stability by refusing to do business with these companies who refuse to treat their drivers fairly. The provincial government needs to mount a vigorous defense of its own legislation to make sure that truckers receive the full payment of all wages owed.”

Wentt said the reason not all trucking companies chose to be part of the suit was due to ‘the kind of slander and false statements that are being bandied about as punishment,’ and many are afraid to get involved.

“The list of companies each have their own reasoning for filing the lawsuit, and mine was one of pushing back against the unfair and unjust regulations that have been forced upon the trucking community, and it is time we took a stand,” Wentt said. “My retro was paid out in December, so I have nothing to lose here but the money I invested in the attorney to challenge the merits of what was done to this industry.”

Wentt added that the lawsuit does not challenge the retroactive pay itself, but the date in which the new rate was backdated. Wentt said the retroactive pay should be implemented as of the day they were notified of the decision – December 2014 – not as far back as April.

In February of that year, container truckers walked off the job for what they said was undercutting of rates and long wait times at the port’s terminals. They returned following negotiations between drivers, Unifor, Port Metro Vancouver and the government, with an increase of 12% to rates.

“All during the strike we heard about poor starving drivers,” Wentt said. “I can only speak for my own fleet, and they were not starving. They were getting a paycheque every week that was very lucrative and there were no complaints. Yes, the long line-ups at the terminals were very frustrating and something needed to be done to help the drivers, but all that was accomplished was the drivers are still waiting just not at the terminals.”

Wentt admitted that there likely were drivers who were not getting paid proper wages by their respective companies, but said they should have come forward and filed complaints against their companies.

She also said that carriers were not included at the negotiation table.

“Ultimately, an agreement to end the strike was forged by drivers, unions and the government,” Wentt said. “The trucking company owners nor any major stakeholders were at the table to try and negotiate a fair and equitable solution to the issues at hand. There was no one at the table who understood the big picture and what the ramifications would be if they pushed for certain things so they could do the proper risk-reward analysis in order to make an informed decision.”

Unifor’s president, on the other hand, would disagree, saying customers should only do business at the port with companies that have accepted the new minimum rates.

“Last month at the bargaining table, we achieved long-term labour peace at the port, but these companies would rather drag us back into a bitter fight over wages,” said Jerry Dias, Unifor’s national president. “There is a wage floor that applies equally to all companies, but this lawsuit seeks to take money out of truckers’ pockets. It’s pure greed.”

Wentt believes there was an opposite result of the negotiations.

“They ended up with an agreement that hurt the drivers and seriously reduced their earning capacity,” she said. “Even with a doubling of the fuel surcharge and a 12% increase in wages, my drivers make less money today than they did before the strike. All the changes driven from the strike have reduced the number of round trips a driver can make in a day. When you don’t bring people to the table who can explain and understand the big picture, you create an agreement that does the opposite of what was intended.”

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