Skip to content

Loading and unloading

The Orca’s series on BC’s ports continues with a look at the history, role, and different relationships of port labour.

90 minutes. That’s the length of the one work stoppage in the past 20 years between BC’s biggest port union and their employers along the coast.

It was an hour-and-a-half lockout in 2019 during the last round of negotiations between the BC Maritime Employers’ Association (BCMEA) and the International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU).

The ports of BC have been disrupted by other unions over working conditions and wages, but it’s the ILWU that handles the majority of workers in the port sector. Beyond the professions in their name, they also represent a number of seafarers, liquid propane facility workers, coal export workers, grain export workers, welders, millwrights, and many more.

Railworkers have their own unions. CN is represented by unions like the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference, Canadian Auto Workers, United Steelworkers, and others; CP workers are also unionized with the Teamsters but also Unifor, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, etc.

The most recent work disruption in that sector was an eight-day CN Rail strike in 2019 that wasn’t specifically aimed at ports, but had significant impacts on the shipping industry. The popular labour anthem Where The Fraser River Flows was written in 1912 amid thousands of railway workers halting labour in protest of unsafe working conditions. When trains stop rolling, the national economy notices, and almost all of them are going to or from a port.

Some truckers serving BC’s ports are unionized by the Teamsters and Unifor, primarily. In 2014, 250 Unifor truckers plus about 1,200 non-union drivers (represented by the United Truckers Association) hit the brakes at the Port of Vancouver, effectively choking international trade for a month. At that time, about half of the cargo coming off ships there was moved by trucks, the other half by train. Truckers must be licensed by the port authority to do so.

As an indication of the complexity of the shipping industry, the negotiated deal that ended the strike involved the federal and provincial governments, the Vancouver-Fraser Port Authority, and about 180 individual businesses that interface with the movement of goods by truck in and out of the Vancouver docks.

When the deal was reached, Port CEO Robin Sylvester said, “It is in all of our best interests that truckers come out of this dispute with their issues resolved because disruptions like this hurt each of us and Canada's international trade reputation deeply."

In other union connections to the port sector, the coast guard is organized by the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) and the Union of Canadian Transportation Employees. There have been picket lines in the past, despite the critical jobs done by the Canadian Coast Guard in BC waters.

The Canada Border Services Agency, also represented by PSAC as well as the Customs & Immigration Union (CIU) for some, provides key commercial services to port activities. They carried out a partial work stoppage this past summer across Canada.

A four-year deal was reached after one day of job action by the agents inspecting goods and people crossing our borders, including marine entries.

On the ship manufacturing side, there are collectives like the Marine Workers & Boilermakers Industrial Union; the Marine & Shipbuilders Union; and the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Ship Builders, Blacksmith, Forgers and Helpers Union; among others.

Even the privately owned Stewart World Port has occasion to use unionized workers at the most northerly docks in British Columbia.

“We work great with ILWU,” said Ted Pickell, the port’s principal owner. “They do a great job for us.”

The ILWU is indisputably the big one. There are 12 locals covering the breadth of the mainland coast and Vancouver Island. To illustrate their reach, ILWU president Rob Ashton said they just co-created a new anti-bullying and harassment program for everyone working in the B.C. shipping industry – a number he estimated at close to 10,000. Not all members of the ILWU, but more than 6,500 of them are.

Each profession chooses its own union, if they want one. The membership of each local, and indeed subgroups within them, has the ability to affiliate with any union it wishes. The ILWU does not represent workers at the Port of Montreal, for example, those employees opted for the Canadian Union of Public Employees instead.

For Atlantic Canada, the choice was the International Longshoreman’s Association.

But in B.C., from top to bottom, the ILWU was chosen. They handle the exclusive contracts and ongoing workplace relationships with the bulk of BC’s terminal operators and related companies.

Those companies also need their own representation at the labour negotiation table, and just as with the clusters of workers, the owners are also a hodge-podge but with one big one. That main player is the BCMEA. They are the negotiation service provider for 49 waterfront employers with a shared workforce of more than 7,500. While most contracts are specific to a certain site and/or a certain skillset, two (one for longshore workers and one for foremen) are coast-wide, covering a combined six different union locals under one contractual roof.

The BCMEA has also expanded their offerings in recent years to include human resources files like recruitment of workers, training, safety and other operational facets. In some cases they overlap with the things private companies do, and in some cases with unions, all with the goal of recruiting and retaining a dependable workforce. The BCMEA said they helped the ILWU draw in 500 new port industry workers last year and expect to recruit 600 more this year.

“The average salary of a waterfront worker is nearly $110,000 per year, which is almost double the provincial and national averages, a clear reflection of the large number of highly-skilled positions that are supported by maritime employers in B.C.,” said BCMEA CEO Mike Leonard.

Mike Leonard (BCMEA)

He added the owners and operators they represent handle about 16 per cent of Canada’s volume in trade goods each year, some $500-million of goods per day, and that all goes through the hands of union workers, so there is appreciation, not an adversarial attitude.

“I believe the state of labour relations is generally stable and constructive. The parties to these collective agreements are sophisticated, have a lengthy history and a demonstrated ability to mobilize and proactively address areas of common concern when and where required,” said Leonard.

“BCMEA strongly believes in collaboration, whenever possible.”

This was never more evident, he said, than the onset of COVID-19 when Canada’s main connection with the world was through our ports.

Workers had to quickly and dramatically alter their professional activities, while at the same time the national economy and Canadians’ daily lives depended on them still importing and exporting as effectively as ever in new, rapidly changing, and dangerous circumstances.

Everything from where workers stood as they did their jobs to coordinating waves of immunizations became a joint effort between employers and employees.

Rob Ashton, President of the ILWU, agreed that collaboration between the two sides of the labour table has been appreciated and looked promising into the future, but it was still business as usual for the union looking out for its members.

“Each port is different and unique in its operations,” said Ashton. “The one constant is the professionalism of the labour workforce. Employers only make money and grow because of the hard work of their workers.”

Community composition, supply chain logistics, emergency response, the handling of goods in amounts noticeable in the nation’s Gross Domestic Product numbers… For BC’s ports and the people who work there, the relationships are intertwined and constantly dynamic – because stakes are as high as they get anywhere in the Canadian economy.

Frank Peebles is a veteran magazine and newspaper journalist based in Prince George. He has won numerous awards for his work, including Canadian Community Newspaper Association and BC-Yukon Community Newspaper Association citations.