Vancouver Port to hold talks on trucking operations

by Frank Condron

VANCOUVER, B.C. – The Vancouver Port Authority (VPA) and the British Columbia Trucking Association (BCTA) have announced they will hold talks this month in an effort to “come to an arrangement” regarding port trucking operations and the implementation of the port’s controversial licensing program.

While the talks are ongoing, the groups say, the port will continue as normal and the VPA’s interim licensing program will continue to be in force. The VPA had planned to replace the interim system, put in place following a labor dispute more than one year ago, with a permanent system effective Jan.1. Many owner/operators at the port are opposed to the permanent system because it does not contain the per-hour wage provision they fought for during a strike in 1999 that virtually closed the port. A group of about 150 O/Os reportedly voted on Dec. 11 to not abide by the permanent licensing system should it be implemented.

In spite of the seeming unrest among some port drivers, BCTA president Paul Landry says it is business as usual at the port at the moment.

“The reality is, out of more than 200 carriers who have licenses to operate at the port, only a handful-three or four-are paying O/Os an hourly wage,” Landry says. “If lots were benefitting from that provision and it was taken away, then you could see an uproar. But in this case, I don’t see why there would be a groundswell of support for a labor disruption.”

A state of uneasy calm has existed at Vancouver’s three container terminals since the port’s surprise withdrawal in November of the year-old, hourly wage and licensing deal with intermodal truckers. And some insiders believe a very real possibility exists for a repeat of the bitter strike of 1999 that cost related businesses some $55 million.

“Suffice it to say, everyone is pretty pissed off,” says Stan Hennessy of Teamsters Local 31, who spoke on behalf of the truckers before the Labor Relations Board during the 1999 walkout. “Things are not settled out here. People have bills to pay and truck payments to make. And desperate times sometimes call for desperate measures.”

The Teamsters represent about 200 container haulers working at the port, Hennessy says, and they are all paid by the hour. But there are approximately 300 non-union drivers and O/O’s who are generally paid “by the can.”

Port truckers were very angry over being, they claim, “caught off-guard” by the VPA in early November when port officials gave only 24 hours notice of a meeting where they planned to announce the fate of the interim licensing system. At that meeting, VPA officials announced that the voluntary system would be made mandatory on Jan. 1, 2001, but would not contain a per-hour wage provision.

The original dispute erupted in July 1999, when port drivers parked their rigs to protest long loading delays that were wiping out the razor-thin margins they make on “per-container” movements. While carriers were building one-hour wait times into their pay structures, O/Os often waited three or four times that long to get a load.

Truckers at the port formed an association and presented their concerns to the port authority, terminal operators and carriers, without success.

After a unanimous vote on July 24 1999, a group of about 450 truckers blocked the terminals, calling for $53 per hour while on port property.

With containers piling up by the quayside, the port caved in a month later. The truckers agreed to an “interim” offer that would see carriers voluntarily pay them $46 per hour as of Oct. 1 1999, to be followed by an increase to $48 per hour on June 1 of 2000 and finally to $50 per hour by March 2001.

The port also promised to refuse to grant licenses to carriers that wouldn’t sign on to the deal, but Landry maintains that very few carriers ever met the provisions spelled out in the interim deal.

In November, the VPA said steps taken to speed up the loading process at the port have successfully reduced waiting times to the point where an hourly wage provision is “no longer appropriate.”

Landry feels the loading situation has improved a lot since the strike. And while he agrees that there have been rumblings of discontent at the port, he describes them as “muted.”

“Nothing has surfaced yet beyond some threats,” he says.

According to the VPA/BCTA release announcing the new talks, the VPA “will continue with its program of new initiatives to reduce waiting times at terminals. This includes implementation of VPA’s web-cam traffic-management system and truck-reservation system.” n

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