British Columbia dockworkers strike: Union warns against Ottawa interference as talks continue

The strike affects activities at BC maritime hubs, including the Port of Vancouver and the Port of Prince Rupert, the No. 1 and No. 3 busiest in the country.

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The union representing thousands of striking BC dockworkers is asking the federal government not to interfere after business groups called for return-to-work legislation.

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The president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union of Canada, Rob Ashton, held a news conference on Sunday afternoon after 7,400 members walked off the job on Saturday morning.

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“For the last 30 years we have had labor peace in this province. It’s been almost 30 years since our union was on strike,” Ashton said Sunday.

“If the (BC Maritime Employers Association) has their way, and their way is to let the government make this collective bargaining agreement for them, there will never be labor peace in the waterfront.”

Ashton said federally mediated talks with the association are ongoing and will continue “all day, all night” to try to get dockworkers back to work.

“This agreement must be reached at the collective bargaining table,” he said.

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Business groups across Canada have sounded the alarm about the potential economic impact of the strike, which affects thousands of cargo shippers and 49 of the province’s waterfront employers at more than 30 provincial ports.

Responding to calls for return-to-work legislation, a spokesman for Labor Minister Seamus O’Regan said in a statement that the federal government doesn’t look further than the bargaining table because the best deals are made there.

“Federal mediators continue to support the parties in their negotiations,” he said.

Ashton did not answer questions on Sunday afternoon, holding a brief news conference flanked by members of the union’s bargaining committee outside the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service office in downtown Vancouver.

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“We do not plan to leave the negotiating table. We expect the BCMEA to be here all day, all night until an agreement is reached so our people can get back to work with a negotiated agreement that is fair to all of us,” he said. “Because that’s where we belong, it’s back to work.”

In other parts of BC, small communities like Prince Rupert are feeling the effects of the strike as local officials wait and see what happens if the dispute drags on.

Prince Rupert Mayor Herb Pond told The Canadian Press on Sunday that it’s hard to overstate the importance of port operations to his community of just over 12,000 residents.

When the port terminal opened there about 16 years ago, Pond said the city was reeling from the closure of a pulp mill, as well as a downturn in the local fishing industry.

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“When the container terminal opened, we were literally turning our economy around,” he said. “The next 16 years have been incredibly remarkable not only for our little community but also for Canada.”

Pond said the terminal has become one of the busiest and most important shopping malls in the country, and the people it employs have a significant presence in Prince Rupert.

“There is no one in the city who does not know, lives next door, works, plays with someone who is involved in this,” he said. “It sure saved the community and made the difference between us being a very remote little community and being this critical hub for the Canadian economy.”

Pond said the port terminal has expansion plans, and CN Rail has also made investments in rail infrastructure that have the potential to open up many future opportunities at Prince Rupert, though he has to wait and see how the strike continues.

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“If it goes on for a long time, it will be hard on families, it will be hard on the community and it will not be good for the Canadian economy,” he said. “We move a lot of merchandise.”

The union previously said that outsourcing, port automation and the cost of living are key issues in the dispute.

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