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As B.C. port deal nears, expert says more labour disputes could lie ahead

An end to the labour dispute at B.C. ports is in sight, with the two sides agreeing to another tentative deal. But as Monika Gul reports, one expert suggests we could see more labour unrest like this in the coming months.

Could the labour dispute at B.C.’s ports finally come to an end?

Late Sunday night, the union and employers announced that yet another tentative agreement had been reached and that they were recommending their members ratify it.

“Yes, there have been concerns and worries about how things are unfolding over the past days but we now have a situation where there is another offer, there is another potential deal on the table,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said.

The labour dispute between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and the BC Maritime Employers Association (BCMEA) is just one of many in various industries in recent months.

Fraser Valley bus drivers, Canada Revenue Agency employees, and even Hollywood writers and actors are just some of the other groups to go on strike so far this year.

“There’s large groups of workers, across a variety of industries, who see this as the moment to, really, take a stand and say, you know, ‘we’ve had it,'” explained Barry Eidlin, associate professor of Sociology, McGill University.

Fraser Valley BC Transit workers on strike

FILE – Fraser Valley BC Transit workers on strike in March 2023. (CityNews Image)

Eidlin says while there haven’t been as many labour disputes lately compared to historical periods of labour unrest, there have been more compared to recent years.

He says there are a few reasons for this, including the pandemic.

“Which had the effect of crystalizing a lot of long-term trends in the workplace, about eroding pay, about soaring inequality, about unpredictable scheduling, about management mistreatment, about job security,” Eidlin said.

“There does seem to be some … quantitative evidence that there are more disputes right now,” added Peter Hall, professor of Urban Studies, Simon Fraser University.

Hall says high inflation and the tight labour market also appear to be behind the current unrest.

“Labour can feel right now that they can make more requests from employers because employers are having a tough time finding employees in the current wages and working conditions,” he told CityNews.

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It’s not yet clear when members of the ILWU will hold a ratification vote on the latest tentative deal, but Eidlin says more labour disputes like it could be on the horizon.

“This is just, sort of, in the early stages of what would potentially be a labour upsurge. But, I think, especially because you’re also seeing it in the U.S. — and what happens in the U.S. also sort of has knock on effects, to some extent — but I wouldn’t be surprised if we start seeing more of an uptick,” he said.

About 7,400 workers at more than 30 B.C. ports initially went on strike for 13 days starting on Canada Day. They cited issues including pay and provisions related to maintenance work, contracting out, and automation.

That job action ended with word of a tentative deal, which the union’s leadership then went on to reject without taking it to the membership for a vote.

Another bout of strike action resumed, which was then ruled illegal by the Canada Industrial Relations Board, because notice had not been given.

While members then issued 72-hour strike notice, that was rescinded hours later, as both sides returned to the bargaining table.

Another deal was then reached. This one, however, would be rejected by the ILWU’s membership after two days of voting.

The third tentative agreement was announced Sunday, July 27. The union has said it is recommending its membership ratify this deal, though that has yet to happen.

“I think that it’s been a dispute that’s been quite disputed, if you will, because it’s dealing with some real existential issues that have to do with the quality of work and the structure of work on the ports in Canada,” explained Eidlin, who adds this situation “goes beyond issues of pay and benefits.”

“We’re talking about the future of technological change, we’re talking about subcontracting — these are issues that don’t just affect port workers, these affect Canadian workers across a broad swath of industries.”

The B.C. port strike has disrupted billions of dollars worth of trade, industry groups have said.

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