VANCOUVER, B.C. - A truck driver sleeping in the cab of his truck is awakened by the sounds of gunfire. He emerges from his truck to find that it along with several other nearby trucks have been spray...
VANCOUVER, B.C. – A truck driver sleeping in the cab of his truck is awakened by the sounds of gunfire. He emerges from his truck to find that it along with several other nearby trucks have been sprayed with bullets. A red vehicle speeds off into the night.
Days earlier, a security guard is ambushed and forced to the ground at gunpoint while an axe-wielding thug smashes the windshields of several trucks and severs their brake lines.
While these incidents may sound like scenes from the latest Hollywood gangster movie, they were actual recent events in the Lower Mainland linked to the increasingly violent container trucker strike.
“This is crazy. Drug dealers do this to each other,” Paul Cheema, an owner/operator with Pro-West Transport told local media.
“I’ve never heard of people doing this over a labour dispute.”
Thankfully, the dispute wound down in early August with no fatalities or serious injuries reported. But not before crippling the Port of Vancouver and costing the Canadian economy an estimated $500 million.
More than 1,000 container haulers parked their trucks June 27 vowing they wouldn’t return to work until their rates were increased to help offset rising fuel costs.
By early August, containers were stacked up like cordwood at the port. The National Post reported there were 25,000 containers backlogged at the port, while other estimates were considerably lower.
Either way, port officials said it would take weeks to clear the backlog.
Meanwhile, truckers began returning to work Aug. 3 after agreeing to terms of a temporary deal reached by mediator Vince Ready.
Ready’s agreement reportedly saw haulage rates increase by up to 60 per cent – an increase that didn’t sit well with all of the carriers who serve the port.
In fact, Pro-West Transport and a handful of other carriers vowed to sue the port, saying it was breaking the law by setting haulage rates.
Pro-West vice-president Mike Bowman told Truck West that with slim profit margins, the 60 per cent rate increase would have to be passed on “straight to the customer” adding “I don’t think that’s fair.”
For its part, the port authority said it was entitled to implement the controversial Order in Council, since the federal government invoked a section of the Transportation Act which allows it to set prices to get the freight moving again.
Carriers wishing to serve the port had to apply for licences which bound them to the terms of the Order in Council as well as a two-year Memorandum of Agreement outlined by Ready.
While not all carriers agreed to the terms laid out by Ready, most of the companies serving the port begrudgingly signed the MOA, and their drivers returned to work.
“The licensing system allows trucks back to work while allowing some time for a long-term solution to be found,” said Vancouver Port Authority (VPA) president and CEO, Capt. Gord Houston.
“This dispute has been very hard on many people throughout the community, hard on the economy, and has damaged the reputation of Canada’s busiest maritime gateway. We all need to pull together to find a lasting solution to these challenges so that we can rebuild confidence in the reliability of this port.”
Be that as it may, just days after the initial Order in Council was announced, the scope of the situation broadened significantly.
The VPA said all carriers wishing to serve the port must comply not only with the Order in Council, but with the two-year Memorandum of Agreement between contractors and the Vancouver Container Truckers Association (VCTA).
That includes long-haul trucking companies, carriers who operate their own equipment and those that pay owner/operators on an hourly basis.
These carriers were not a part of the shutdown (although some withdrew their services to protect their drivers and equipment from the line of fire) and B.C. Trucking Association (BCTA) president Paul Landry says they shouldn’t have to sign the MOA.
“Forcing trucking companies into the independent contractor/MOA model has the potential to cause significant disruption to hundreds of stable companies in the trucking industry, not to mention services provided to both local and long-haul port customers,” Landry said in a tersely-worded letter to federal Transport Minister, Jean-C. Lapierre.
Many business leaders have suggested the federal government’s involvement in the crisis was nothing short of a gong show. It took them five weeks to intervene in the first place, and the requirement that all trucking companies agree to the MOA was befuddling.
After all, many of these companies had no ties with the VCTA in the first place.
And while business leaders waited patiently for the government to intervene in the dispute, some Canadian businesses were forced to lay off employees. Other small businesses faced storage fees they claimed they couldn’t afford.
Now, leaders wonder what the long-term impact on the Port of Vancouver may be.
“The damage to Vancouver’s reputation as a reliable conduit for goods is real and only the future will show us the full extent of that damage,” Ian May of the Western Canadian Shippers Coalition told the Canadian Press.
In fact, some shippers that began routing their goods through U.S. ports have publicly stated they plan to continue doing so – at least until the Port of Vancouver demonstrates some long-term stability.
However, the feds say they are doing everything they can to assure a permanent resolution is reached.
A task force was set up Aug. 8 to bridge the gap between container haulers and their employers.
“The Port of Vancouver is of vital interest to the local and national economies,” said Industry Minister David L. Emerson. “While the Government of Canada has acted diligently to help resolve this issue in the short-term, today’s announcement is a further step in facilitating the necessary actions to bring about a lasting resolution.”
The three-member task force was expected to submit an interim report to the Transport Minister Lapierre within 45 days – with its full findings slated to be released this fall.
While trucks are slowly chipping away at the container backlog, the current agreement is simply a band-aid solution with a permanent fix still in the works.
Early indications suggest that striking container haulers appear to have gotten their way – but at what cost?
“It is disturbing that essentially the group that shut down the port and caused all of this economic damage, and who basically escaped the consequences of the impact of the law on them is being rewarded by having all companies forced to sign this agreement with them,” said Landry.
“The people who engaged in these acts have been rewarded, what’s the message there?”
Landry expressed concern the outcome of this dispute could set a template for other truckers to follow in the future.
He shuddered at the thought that drivers upset with border wait times, for example, may view this as a way to effectively voice their frustrations.
“It’s hard to imagine another situation in which one part of the business community could take this kind of action and harm another part of the business community and have enforcement and government officials not intervene strenuously,” Landry said.
Shockingly, after most container haulers returned to work, bullets continued to fly.
Landry said a BCTA member company had 20 shots fired at its equipment and buildings as recently as Aug. 8.
Landry expressed concern that no significant arrests had been made.
“Policing has been fairly passive in terms of this dispute and the provincial government officials who were responsible for policing were pretty quiet in terms of taking a stance opposed to violence,” Landry said.
“It was fairly disappointing not to see a high road approach taken by government officials and police agencies.”