No End in Sight For CN Brampton Terminal Woes

by Ingrid Phaneuf

BRAMPTON, Ont. – Meetings were conducted, court orders were issued, picket lines were formed and promises were made, but two weeks after drivers started to demonstrate outside the CN intermodal terminal in Brampton, Ont. normal operations at the yard were no closer to resuming.

In fact the situation had grown worse. While drivers picketed outside the terminal, the container backlog in the terminal yard mounted to 2,500 and counting. When CN finally issued a promise to rectify the situation Sept. 10, it was too little, too late.

Someone would have to clear the backlog away. But it wasn’t going to be the drivers.

“There’s no way drivers are going to go there and wait without compensation, and the carriers just don’t have it,” said Robert Volfson, owner of Carmel Transport International. Eighty per cent of his company’s business depends on picking up from the CN BIT (Brampton Intermodal Terminal). (About 40 carriers in the GTA do business at the BIT. Eighty per cent of the container industry is handled by O/Os.)

At issue to begin with were the wait times for loading which all parties agreed were intolerable – up to eight hours according to some accounts. That was before the current backlog.

“The O/Os want money for waiting, but there’s no one who’s willing to give it to them,” said Volfson.

“So I’ve told the ones who work for me they can do what they want.”

Compensation for time spent waiting was one of the main themes at a meeting for O/Os, carriers, steamship reps and freight forwarders held Sept. 8.

The meeting, where chairs were at a premium (there was room for 100 and 200 showed up), was called by Volfson to try to address the spontaneous boycott of the CN BIT called by drivers Sept. 2.

“We wanted to try to come up with some solutions that would allow us to return drivers to work,” said Volfson. A committee (formed at the meeting) came up with a proposal that freight forwarders or steamship lines pay $150 per pick up to carriers sending drivers to the terminal, with $100 of that going directly to drivers. Steamship reps and freight forwarders in attendance promised to take the proposal back to their companies for approval.

But the idea quickly fizzled, according to George Kuhn, executive director of the Canadian International Freight Forwarders Association (CIFFA).

“The bigger companies won’t do it,” he said.

CN also nixed the idea of paying drivers extra for excessive wait times.

“We’re willing to fix the problem but we’re not going to pay truckers more to pick up from our yard,” said Mark Hallman, a spokesman for CN. But with pressures and police reports about attacks on drivers and carriers entering the yard rising, not to mention the container backlog, CN did finally come to the table with an offer Sept. 10. The offer included more cranes to serve carriers, a management contact for truckers to communicate with on site, a commitment to an average 15-minute wait to get into the terminal and a 45-minute turnaround once drivers get in, and a hotline number for truckers to call if they have to wait more than 60 minutes.

Of course, the 45-minute average turnaround would only apply once the backlog is cleared, said CN. The backlog that caused the wait times (up to eight hours, said truckers) and sparked the protest was due to the outage in August, said CN officials.

“That and the fact carriers won’t pick up overnight and on the weekends,” said Hallman.

Carriers countered they had nowhere to put the containers if warehouses weren’t open to receive them.

“Where are we supposed to bring the containers after we pick them up?” said Parker Chan, owner of Best Choice Express. (Chan claimed the windshields of five trucks were shattered and a driver was threatened as a result of crossing the picket line at BIT – for more on that see pg. 30). Kuhn said it was possible freight forwarders might be able to convince their customers to keep their warehouses open overnight and on weekends, but he wasn’t making any guarantees.

As for CN’s latest offer, Kuhn said he liked it.

“The willingness to improve the situation is there. CN came forward with a concrete plan to rectify the situation,” he said. “And I believe they will.”

But carriers and drivers said it’s too little, too late.

“Right now there’s a backlog and that means waits,” reiterated Volfson. “Drivers don’t want to go in there without compensation.”

Drivers and carriers have lost faith in CN and its promises, he said.

Last year saw drivers form picket lines outside the same terminal, for many of the same reasons. On Sept. 25, 2002 owner/operators parked their trucks there in an attempt to garner attention about O/O rates and rail yard wait times.

The Container Carrier Owner/Operators Association of Toronto (CCOOAT) circulated a flyer calling for drivers to halt pick-ups that Wednesday morning.

Five days later, the drivers were back on the road with an agreement from their carriers and CN. O/Os got an increase in their per move rate in the GTA to an average of $80 per move. Hallman said at that time that a number of measures have been put into place to ensure objectives of both parties would be met, and that there would be a timely flow in and out of the terminal.As a result of these measures, he said, wait times would decrease significantly.

That was last year. CN had already gotten a court order to prevent protesting truckers from impeding access to the terminal yard.

When picketing broke out again this September, CN returned to court to have another court order issued. The latest court order, issued Sept. 10, named A. Nasir Yusuf, president of the Container Carrier Owner Operators’ Association of Ontario (CCOOAO, formerly the CCOOAT); Eli Yanko, Alberta Fernandez, Christopher Kane, Christopher Ford and Gustavo Proto as the defendants and restricted the number of pickets allowed to protest outside the yard, with the proviso they would not block entries or exits. The injunction restricted the number of pickets to eight from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. and prohibited any pickets between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. The order also instructed local police to attend regularly to see the court order enforced.

The order would come in handy if CN starts using its own trucks and drivers to empty the yard. But whether they would do so was the subject of speculation at press time.

George Kuhn said they might.

“They certainly have the resources,” said Kuhn.

Volfson, for his part, was skeptical.

“They don’t have the manpower,” he said. “And if they wanted to get into the trucking business they would have done that a long time ago.” Volfson was asked how he thought truckers might react if CN started to clear the yard itself.

“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s not going to be good.”

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