Introduction of automation could revive British Columbia port dispute

Introduction of automation could revive British Columbia port dispute
Introduction of automation could revive British Columbia port dispute

The Industrial Relations Board has withdrawn a strike notice that would have led to a walkout on Monday

A narrowly averted strike at British Columbia’s ports could recur despite federal intervention unless the core problem of automation and its threat to union jobs is addressed, an expert says.

The Canada Industrial Relations Board on Sunday ordered the union representing ship and port foremen at British Columbia ports to withdraw a strike notice against DP World Canada, which was set to launch a strike on Monday.

According to Barry Eidlin, an associate professor at McGill University, while there may not be strikes this time around, the core problem of automation at ports has still not been addressed.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 514 reported in June that DP World Canada had notified the union that it would implement automation in the loading and unloading of freight containers at its Centerm facility in the Port of Vancouver.

The union is negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement with the BC Maritime Employers Association. The Labour Court has ruled that the strike notice was unlawful, because the strike vote only affected DP World employees.

Eidlin says that if the employers do not work with the union to find an acceptable solution, it would not be surprising if the local union reaches a position where its members can legally strike, which could happen “within a few weeks or a few months.”

“Forcing workers to return to work or attempting to restrict their Charter-protected right to strike will not solve the underlying problems,” Eidlin said.

DP World Canada referred a request for comment to its employers’ association, but it declined to comment because the automation issue will be addressed by the Canada Industrial Relations Board at hearings that resume on August 6.

The maritime employers had taken what they called a “defense action” in response to Local 514’s strike notice. They threatened to lock out all union members at the companies represented by the association if the strike against DP World Canada went ahead.

The sector-wide lockout at British Columbia ports has been lifted after the council voted on the strike notice against DP World Canada.

In 2023, thousands of workers at most British Columbia ports struck for 13 days, halting billions of dollars in trade at the ports.

According to Eidlin, the ongoing tensions at British Columbia’s ports between employers and workers appear to be a continuation of the hostility that arose last year during the dispute between employers and the dockworkers’ union.

Eidlin says both last year’s strike and the current labor dispute have shown that employers at the port are taking a “more aggressive” tone toward unions, which have historically been willing to threaten strikes and can be seen by some as “combative.”

He says that if the union’s claim that DP World “unilaterally” imposed working conditions without consulting workers is true, the local union’s decision to issue a strike notice may have been seen as “the only option they had.”

“These are life-and-death issues, both in substance, in the sense that port automation is a core issue that will have dramatic consequences for workers’ lives… and in form, in the sense that allowing employers to make unilateral changes to working conditions is a serious violation of the core principles of how collective bargaining should work.”

Liam McHugh-Russell, an associate professor at Dalhousie University, agrees that another strike in the ongoing labor dispute is possible if employers and workers do not discuss the core issues surrounding automation.

However, he says he is not concerned about the deterioration of labour relations at British Columbia’s ports, as the strike and lockout notices are an indication that the negotiation process is proceeding as intended.

“The union is specifically concerned about the practices of one employer, but given the structure of the bargaining relationship and the structure of the (labor law), it is not within their power to bargain directly with that one employer,” McHugh-Russell said.

“Given that the problem is with one employer, it makes sense that they would try that,” he said of the latest strike announcement. “They went against the boundaries of the (labor law) … and there was certainly a significant risk of disruption.”

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