B.C. port workers’ strike could cost Canadian economy billions of dollars

There is still no movement at the port after 7,400 workers went on strike on Canada Day setting in motion job action that could drain the nation’s economy of billion of dollars.

The Canadian Chamber of Commerce says about $800 million in goods moves through B.C. ports every day, and if this strike spans a week, the country could lose as much as $5.5 billion.

“The Canadian Chamber of Commerce is urging the Government of Canada to immediately intervene in order to prevent further disruption to Canada’s supply chains and limit the impact on Canadians, who are bearing the cost of inflationary pressures,” it says in a statement.

Canada’s Minister of Labour Seamus O’Regan took to social media over the long weekend to confirm the two sides are still talking.

“The focus needs to be on the table. All our energies must be directed at the table. Because that’s where the best deals are reached. Canadians are counting on it.”

Over the weekend, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Canada held a news conference and issued a blunt warning to the federal government not to get involved.

“This deal must be reached at the collective bargaining table,” says President Rob Ashton. “For the last 30 years, we’ve had labour peace in this province. It’s been almost 30 years since our union has been on strike. If the (BC Maritime Employers Association) gets their way, and their way is to let the government make this collective agreement for them, there will never be labour peace on the waterfront.”

Fiona McQuarrie, professor emeritus at the University of the Fraser Valley says the federal government has a few options to put a stop to this.

“Every government in Canada has the option of back-to-work legislation, which essentially, sends the workers back to work but lets the negotiations continue… but that’s sort of a last resort,” the business professor said.

McQuarrie says whether it’s mediation or intervening, the clock is ticking.

“With the port workers, obviously this is a very critical workplace because of the amount of goods that comes through the ports, and it also has a big ripple effect because those goods get put on trucks or get put on trains and get transported to wholesalers and retailers. So, there’s a lot of other industries that are impacted by a shutdown as well,” she said.

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Wages to handle the brunt of the cost-of-living crisis is among the sticking points in this fight. McQuarrie says she understands why.

“Perhaps workers feel their wages are not rising at a level that will help them keep up with rising costs. But I think the Public Service Alliance [of Canada] (PSAC) strike demonstrated that, at least for that group, that a strike can be effective in getting some of what the workers want in the negotiations. And also, we’re coming out of the effects of the pandemic and that really hit a lot of people very hard financially.”

McQuarrie feels there may also be a generational factor to this strike.

“Younger workers are starting to realize the value that unions can have for them and seeing them as an option,” she explains. “I think with Amazon and Starbucks, at least in the U.S. and this is starting to happen in Canada as well, those unions are started by the younger workers themselves. They have a lot more say over what the union does, and they structure the union in a way that works for them and their particular concerns.”

She says the last statistical estimates show somewhere between 70 and 90 per cent of collective agreement negotiations in Canada are settled without a strike.

“A strike is more unusual than it is usual, but the ones that get publicity… are large groups of workers whose work is critical to the economy,” she said.

-With files from Cole Schisler

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