In-Depth Special Feature: Covering the Vancouver Strike
VANCOUVER, BC — Can anything good come out of the month-long strike at Canada’s largest port, Port Metro Vancouver?
I flew down to find out first-hand what exactly is going on. It was my first time visiting Vancouver and here’s what I think I learned.
- There’s a long history of complaints about wait times at the port’s terminals
- Miscommunication is rampant
- Undercutting is an ongoing issue
- Vancouver is beautiful but expensive
Wait times at terminals
The strike originally started because of long wait times at the port’s four terminals: Deltaport on Roberts Bank, Fraser Surrey Docks on the Fraser River, DP World Vancouver Container Terminal on the south shore of Burrard Inlet and Vanterm on the south shore of Burrard Inlet.
“Believe me their cause was just, they tried to do it the right way,” Suzanne Wentt, owner of Indian River Transpor said. “Drivers tried to get relief a year ago when they staged an all-night sit because of excessive wait times at terminals. But they got no relief. In October they had a one-day protest sending a very clear message: if their concerns were not addressed, they would withdraw. But they saw no improvements, only escalating wait times especially at Deltaport.”
“The port is a lot of the problem,” Wentt said. “Even in 2005, the truck drivers went on strike over trip rates and service at terminals.”
In 2005, the port’s container truckers went on strike over long wait times at the terminals and did not return to work for six weeks.
Vince Ready was brought in and the following changes were made:
- Minimum rates were established for non-union drivers, which the port agreed to audit and enforce. These have been dubbed “Ready Rates”;
- Federal government mandated the port to start a mandatory truck license system
- The provincial government implemented a dispute resolution process for non-union and owner-operators. They work in consultation with the port and Transport Canada.
The port claims that few trucks wait longer than two hours and the 14 point plan promises truck drivers a flat fee of 25 dollars if they wait over two hours.
When I brought this up with the truckers, they just laughed. “Twenty-five dollars is a joke. We don’t need silliness, we need solutions.”
I think they meant bullshit, but you shouldn’t swear around a lady.
The port seems to know that wait times are an issue because in 2013, it announced its Smart Fleet Strategy, a three-year collaborative plan to improve the efficiency and reliability of the container truck sector.
But Wentt said that’s not been her experience with the port.
“First of all, not all the trucks are equipped with Port GPS and the data doesn’t match up with other companies’ GPS readings,” she said.
I admitted that I didn’t know much about how it works, so Wentt explained: the data can be misleading because it’s averaged out.
“You can sit outside for three hours,” she told me. “On February 24, [two days before the strike began] I had someone wait at Deltaport for seven hours. But I had many guys going in and out fast so it averages out to 90 minutes, but many of my guys were waiting three, four hours.”
To make decent money, Wentt said, a driver needs to make six moves a day, but if they wait that long at terminals they can’t make enough to get a return on their investment.
Matthew May, VP of BST Management, another trucking company servicing the port, commented: “Over the past several months, the ability for owner-operators in the sector to move the volumes they’re used to and need to in order to make money has deteriorated to a point they feel is unacceptable.”
So what’s changed?
May told me it’s not an easy answer, but that there are many components of the service chain at play. Amongst them are rail performance, terminal congestion, dock labor and abuses of the reservation system.
Miscommunication is rampant
At 4:30 a.m. on Thursday I called a cab. The driver was a friendly ex-marine who drove me to Pearson Airport. My flight was at 6:55 a.m. and got me to Vancouver around nine.
I hit the ground running, seeking answers to my many questions, very pleased that I gained three hours. My most pressing question was, why are the truckers asking the port for better wages when the port is not the employer?
Getting a word out of the port proved to be very difficult, but although I did not manage to get anyone officially on the record, I have been Tweeting back and forth with the port and this they’ve been very clear on: They cannot negotiate wages with the truckers because they are not the employers. The carriers are.
“I pay the driver, not the port, but they don’t want to engage with us for whatever reason because they think they will get the same thing they did in 2005,” she said. “How can we reach a solution when we haven’t even got all the stakeholders in the same room?”
Just to be clear, for a trucking company to gain access to Port container terminals, they must hold a license provided and managed by Port Metro Vancouver. Owner-operators need to have a permit from the Port and must be hired on by a company with a port license. Also, the carriers can only hire independent contractors who have a permit.
The port claims to have over 150 carriers. May told me there are 158 carriers servicing the port and a spokesperson at the BC Trucking Association puts the number closer to 176.
What’s more, May told me that the port runs at 10 percent of normal volumes, daily. I Tweeted this information out and was quickly corrected by the port. They claim to be running at 36 percent of normal on March 19.
So what I learned, I guess, is that I’m stuck in a he said- she said situation. It’s like with the GPS. The port said one thing, the carriers’ another. And what’s more, when the GPS system was first introduced, Today’s Trucking’s editor Peter Carter contacted the port so as to do a story. Mum’s the word. He couldn’t get in touch and neither could I, this time around, it seems.
Another he said-she said? The port claims on their website that “Though representatives of the striking truckers are saying they are in negotiations with government, in fact they are not. The government is not the employer and cannot negotiate wage increases on behalf of the employers, which are trucking companies and shippers.”
At Canada Place, the part of Port Metro Vancouver located in the heart of the city, the port is adorned with historical plaques, for the enjoyment of tourists that claim: “We ship enough cargo to put this harbour among the top few in volume on the continent. The 10,000 people employed by the shipping agents, terminals, chandlers and other marine services are behind the Port’s outstanding performance.”
Ironically, tourists can look at just across the water to the port’s many containers, an impressive-looking operation. In that more industrial part of town, container truckers stand on strike over long wait times at terminals.
They’re in sweaters, huddled around a fire. They’re there 24/7, they told me. They sleep in a rented RV and showed me the tent where they keep food, snacks like Twizzlers, battle boredom by playing cards and speaking about their kids. They even showed me their bright blue portable washroom.
Undercutting is an ongoing issue
On Friday at noon, Unifor and UTA members formed a rally in front of Canada Place.
“This is the third dispute in 15 years,” a speaker yelled through a megaphone at the rally. “In 1991 the problem was undercutting. In 2005, it was undercutting, now, it’s the same – undercutting. Shame!”
All around me truckers cheered.
But Wentt said the truckers themselves play a part in that.
“Undercutting was created by a lot of drivers who wanted to start up, and they cut the rates,” she told me. “Those rate cutters started as small companies and have grown, but the drivers don’t want to take responsibility for it. They want someone to come in and fix it for them. I don’t know what will get them back to work.”
Unifor container trucker Harinder Dhillon commented: “If we sit on strike or if we’re working it’s the same. We make nothing. All the money we burn on fuel and other expenses.”
He’s been a container trucker for 14 years and has three kids. I must admit, seeing them pulled at my heartstrings a bit, but Wentt said they are not without options.
“They have options. If they are not paid the Ready Rates, they can turn their employer to the port and the owner will be investigated and mandatory payments will have to be made to the driver and the owner may lose their terminal license.”
“There’s a shortage of lease operators in the city, so if they want to work for a company who’s willing to pay them, they can. They just don’t want to do it,” she said.
The solution she said, is to talk with carriers, talk with the port, but so far, carriers have been by-passed in the negotiation process. As for the UTA, Wentt said they’re an association, so they cannot bargain for better pay for drivers.
I asked Dhillon why they’re not talking to carriers and he told me, “We’ll talk to our employers, that’s not an issue. It’s the port. We want a stop to undercutting.”
Vancouver is beautiful, but expensive
Vancouver is a beautiful city. It’s not just the postcards. The mountains really reflect in the water like that and the vegetation is thick, green and healthy ‘cuz it gets lots of rain. But it comes with a big price tag. I was only in Vancouver two nights, but I spent more money than I care to admit to here or anywhere. So I understand that truckers want more money. But standing at that rally, I realized that I was no longer sure that was the issue.
Long wait times prevent truckers from making money. Undercutting hurts their ability to make a living. Truckers want a wage increase. That I understand. But from where I stood at that rally, this labor dispute has turned political.
I could feel the tension rising as people started chanting: “Stop legislating, start negotiating.”
They’re talking about the back-to-work legislation that the truckers face.
It seems they take it personally because they’ve been ignored and now they’re being told to get back to work.
One rally speaker said the government is impeding on the truckers’ democratic rights to protests. They won’t be bullied back to work and they stand united, they said.
On the flip side of the coin, the port uses words like “being held hostage.”
Those are fighting words and frankly, I think it’s escalated a bit out of control.
First of all, as I understand it, in the ‘80s, the courts ruled that it’s not a constitutional right to go on strike, which means the government – be it provincial or federal – can forcefully end a strike. They don’t seem to do it very often, so back-to-work legislation is a last resort tool.
But since mediator Vince Ready could not get the truckers back to work and the 14-point plan was rejected, the government is saying, okay, let’s get cargo moving again. They’ve done it in the past with CN rail. It’s not personal, it’s the law.
“The 14-point plan addresses 80 percent of their concerns, but owners have not been engaged. We have not been asked to negotiate, to come to any talks or meetings,” Wentt told me while I was in Vancouver over the weekend. “I don’t know what will get them back to work.”
When I spoke to Dhillon back at the port’s yard, he said some of Unifor’s concerns with the 14-point plan were not addressed. They wanted a 15 percent rather than the offered 10 percent increase to the established “Ready Rates”.
“They want 15 percent over three years,” Wentt knows, she said. “But it’s unrealistic. It would be cheaper to take your container to Seattle. They think all this work will be waiting for them when they come back, but they don’t know how much work has been lost. Cargo’s diverted.”
Dhillon commented: “If we lose our permits, I don’t know where we’ll go. It means we won’t be able to work for the port anymore. But the union won’t let that happen.”
But I’m not so sure. Are the truckers being misinformed?
Truckers remain defiant in the face of back-to –work legislation, despite the risk of being fined $400 per day.
“A 90-day cooling period is not going to help. We’re going to be angrier at the end of 90 days,” Unifor’s B.C. area director, Gavin McGarrigle said at the rally. “Are the ports and the government serious about getting a sustainable solution?’ The only way to do that is a negotiated agreement.”
“You’re not Ronald Reagan and we’re not the air-traffic controllers,” one rally speaker yelled, to the approval of the crowd. “We stand united.”
He’s referring to the 1981 strike of air-traffic controllers, whom Reagan simply fired.
The truckers are all rallied up and ready to fight, ready to stand their ground, but I wonder if they’ll be hurt in the end. United or not, they haven’t worked in a month, are not getting paid and have bills, like everyone else. So they’re not winning. Not from where I’m looking.
The port’s lost money and business, so they’re not winning either.
Wentt and other carriers like hers are suffering financially too – she might have to close shop, she told me, so they’re not winning.
Anyone doing business out of the port – like local businesses for one – can’t get their shipments, can’t serve their customers, are being charged a daily storage fee by the port and are losing business. They’re not winning.
In all of this, I have to wonder, what does the union want and are they winning?
P.S. The strike did end on Thursday, March 27 and you can read about the settlement here.