Mediator named to head-off Port Metro Vancouver strike

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VANCOUVER, B.C. – A mediator has been appointed to help settle a dispute between unionized container truckers and Port Metro Vancouver.

Federal minister of transport Lisa Raitt announced the appointment of Vincent Ready to the position. A statement announcing the appointment, explains what will happen next:

“Mr. Ready, together with his colleague Ms. Corinn Bell, will conduct a detailed review of the Port Metro Vancouver trucking industry and will provide recommendations to the provincial and federal governments by May 30, 2014. In taking this step, both Canada and B.C. look forward to an immediate return to full port operations.”

Mr. Ready has a history of negotiating agreements between the port and unionized container truck drivers. He was the mediator during the last strike in 2005.

Gavin McGarrigle, the B.C. area director for Unifor, said the Unifor-Vancouver Container Truckers’ Association (VCTA) originally called for his appointment because something needed to happen to get talks started. Contracts between terminal operators at the port and Unifor members expired in June 2012, and since then the truckers have been working without a collective agreement. Negotiations haven’t progressed, and the union had voted in favour of a strike that was scheduled to begin at noon (local time) today.

“We’re prepared to take action if necessary, but it’s not our first choice,” McGarrigle told Truck News.

McGarrigle says a big part of that reason is that Port Metro Vancouver officials and government representatives have done nothing to address a litany of long-standing problems at the port including long wait-times and rate undercutting.

“In terms of the negotiations at the bargaining table, all of the employers we deal with have been telling us that they can’t really make any progress toward a stable collective agreement because of the instability of the ports, the instability of the undercutting and the rate enforcement regime. That’s been a problem,” said McGarrigle.

“As Unifor, we have been meeting with government officials—I’ve been on this file now for almost five years—and have been telling them this isn’t real stability we have. This is fake stability. And there was going to come a crunch when people couldn’t afford to pay their bills anymore. We’ve been saying it doesn’t have to go this way. If we deal with some of the issues that are out there, then hopefully we won’t have to. But it seems government only wants to operate in crisis. And Port Metro Vancouver is certainly no friend of the drivers.”

McGarrigle says nobody is taking action to prevent trucking companies from working around rules and regulations imposed by Ready after the last labour dispute at the port in 2005. In particular he says non-unionized companies are presenting their operations to be something they’re not—organizations with members in what he refers to as “fake unions.” And Unifor isn’t the only group upset by this approach. An association of owner/operators banded together under the name of the United Truckers Association (UTA) and organized a blockade of the port earlier this month to protest undercutting practices.

“The UTA is an organization of non-union owner operators, but there are some other groups out there that are becoming unions for the sake of convenience because of what Mr. Ready put in place in 2005 and what the government subsequently enacted.”

He said rates were set ranging between $100 and $180 dollars per container, but “the rates would only apply to owner/operators that were not covered by a collective agreement. So as a result of that—and the statistics bare this out—there has been a huge explosion in what they call company drivers, which are supposed to be hourly paid drivers. But statistics show 54% of those drivers are paid by the trip. And we’ve had lots and lots of reports that they are not in fact real company drivers at all. They are actually owner/operators that have been bullied into showing up as a company driver because as soon as that happens, there is no rate that can be enforced on them at all.”

McGarrigle added that he’s heard about companies agreeing to work for rates as low as $50 per container, a figure that’s particularly low when long wait-times are factored into the equation.

“I’ve heard lots of complaints about wait-times being two, three, four, five hours. People are putting in long hours—the average hours for container truckers are about 11.6 hours a day. Well if they’re pulling two or three containers a day, you do the math. They’re waiting a long time. But that’s why undercutting of the rates is so important. It’s one thing if you’re waiting and getting paid $150 or $180 per container. It’s another thing if you’re waiting for three or four hours and you’re getting $50 per container. You’re upset, you’re not making the money you need, and it’s born out in the statistics: container truck drivers are pulling a lesser amount of containers than they were in 2005-2006 even though the volume has gone up. “

Other monetary issues of concern to the truckers are fuel surcharges and licensing fees, said McGarrigle.

“The port does other things that inflames the situation like the ready-rates that came out in 2005/2006. They were supposed to apply to moves between the rail yards, the intermodal yards of CN and CP, in fact the chart that’s out there clearly says that, but the port used a loophole in the regulations and said ‘we’re not going to enforce that rate.’ Well now you’ve just taken out a big chunk of it right there. The port came out about two years ago and said we are going to impose a $300 licensing fee on every single owner operator. Boom. That’s more costs that get downloaded onto them,” he explained.

“Another thing that was put in place by Vince Ready is that there is supposed to be a fuel surcharge across the board. Our fuel surcharge right now is 5% or 6%. In other areas of the trucking industry, fuel surcharges are 12%, 13% or 14%. We’ve heard in the non-union area many aren’t even getting it. And if they are they’re getting 1% or 2%. Yet we’ve been told the companies are charging it to their customers. So the customers are getting hosed by paying it but it’s not going to the drivers. It’s just a crazy system out there. That’s why it’s going to take everyone around the table to get this thing resolved. “

Getting everybody around the negotiating table is absolutely critical, according to McGarrigle. He said the container truck workers have been kept out of negotiations for far too long.

“The first thing is we have to get all the parties around the table. BCTA cooking up a deal with PMV between the company owners and PMV, that’s not going to do it. That’s bargaining 101. You have to have all the parties at the table,” he said.

“There are different ways to get to where we need to get to, but at the end of the day, the most important thing is we’re at a table, that we’re regularly consulted, and that we’re not just considered a third-party. The port has a long history of ignoring container truck drivers and preferring to deal with the employers’ association. It’s absolutely bizarre to say the employers somehow are taking care of the concerns of the drivers.”

Once they’re at the table, McGarrigle said the union would be happy to discuss ways of improving operations at the port, including looking at proposals such as operating extended hours.

“One of the things we hear floated is a permanent night shift. Certainly the volumes are increasing and one day you might need to get there, but
the problem we voice is if you have a permanent night shift where are you going to deliver these containers in the middle of the night? They are delivering them to a lot of retail places. Is there even the capacity to receive it on the other end? Because of the undercutting are we going to have hours of service issues where people start working at 8:00 in the morning and work until midnight, going over their hours of service? What about the customers on the receiving end? Do they have the staff to receive these containers at night?

“Again, the fundamental problem is container truckers are just presented with one ‘solution’ after another. Instead, there needs to be regular ongoing dialogue with container truckers at the table. We’re not the only party. There’s the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. There’s BC Trucking association. There are the employers. That’s fine, they all have legitimate issues as well, but if container truckers are just frozen out, and their voices aren’t heard, you’ll never get to the right solutions.”

McGarrigle admits that he’s worried about what a strike would do to people’s perception about the port.

“This is a black mark on the Vancouver port’s reputation. This happened in 1999. It happened in 2005. It’s happening again. Shippers take note of that. They say to themselves, ‘should we be going through here if it’s an unstable port?’

“We tried to point that out to everybody, but again, nobody wants to do anything until we hit a crisis,” he said.

“I know I just saw an article yesterday where Peter Xotta from PMV was expressing that very concern: maybe if this goes on for any length of time, traffic will get diverted through Tacoma or Seattle. And I spoke to a reporter from the Wall Street Journal the other day, and he was saying, that the US ports are losing traffic to Vancouver and Prince Rupert, and they have their own lobby groups and are anxious to get that back.

“There is a real danger here that Canada’s Asia-Pacific Gateway will just be considered an unstable place to do business, and that can have big, big impacts in the long-term.”

Discussions between mediator Ready and Unifor are scheduled to begin today.

In a statement issued by Unifor, Paul Johal VCTA president offered the union’s position on the upcoming negotiations.

“We’re fully prepared to stay involved in discussions until this dispute is resolved,” he said. “If we can’t make progress at the table today on key issues, we’ll have no other option but to put up picket lines.”

Port Metro Vancouver issued a statment, saying it welcomes the appointment of Ready and a review of operations.

“We are optimistic the initiation of this review will accelerate the process of reaching solutions to address systemic problems that have plagued this industry for many years,” said Robin Silvester, president and chief executive officer of Port Metro Vancouver.  “We expect this commitment to a review will be the catalyst necessary to get the entire truck fleet back to work immediately.”

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