VANCOUVER — The labour dispute at British Columbia ports is receiving a federal reaction previously used for events including the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, blockades associated with the Freedom Convoy, and the short-lived rebellion in Russia last month.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau convened the government's incident response group on Wednesday to discuss the conflict between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Canada and the BC Maritime Employers Association as the union threatened strike action again.
The response group, made up of cabinet ministers and senior officials, is described as only being convened at times of "national crisis," or to discuss events with major implications for Canada.
The actions were part of a chaotic 24-hour period at the port, where union pickets went up, were forced down by a labour board, then job action was threatened again for Saturday only to be rescinded by the union late Wednesday.
The union said in a brief note to its locals that strike notice set for July 22 at 9 a.m. "has now been removed."
With the 72-hour notice lifted, the union can't resume strike action unless it files another notice, according to the Canada Industrial Relations Board decision issued against the union on Wednesday.
A statement from the Prime Minister's Office said the response group discussed the impact of the situation, which is creating severe disruptions to Canada’s largest export and import gateway.
It said strike action earlier this month froze billions of dollars' worth of goods from moving in and out.
"The prime minister stressed the critical importance of resuming operations in our ports as soon as possible. Workers and employers across Canada — and all Canadians — cannot face further disruption," the statement said.
Trudeau asked the group to pursue all available options to ensure the stability of supply chains and to protect Canadian jobs and the economy.
The meeting comes as the federal government faces increasing pressure to bring in back-to-work legislation, with industry groups warning of continued impacts on the economy if a strike is allowed to resume.
The union said in a statement earlier Wednesday that it "regrets" the economic impacts of its job action and wants Ottawa to "allow free collective bargaining to occur."
Union president Rob Ashton said in a statement that the union's caucus "was not satisfied the mediator’s deal met the membership’s goals and directed the bargaining committee to seek a negotiated agreement."
The union has said the four-year term of the mediator's proposed agreement was "far too long" and "employers have not addressed the cost-of-living issues" faced by workers in the last few years.
About 7,400 workers at more than 30 B.C. port terminals and other sites began striking on Canada Day and originally returned to work last Thursday after a tentative deal was drafted by a federal mediator.
Both the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and the Canadian Federation of Independent Business have called for back-to-work legislation after the original strike prevented billions of dollars' worth of goods from moving through the ports.
"The 13-day strike had already done significant damage to small businesses across the country and Canada’s international reputation as a dependable trading partner," federation executive vice-president Corinne Pohlmann said in a statement.
"To let it carry on any further is negligent and will amplify disruptions of the supply chain."
Robin Guy, vice-president and deputy leader, government relations, at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, said further delay will cause the Canadian economy more harm.
"We’re calling on the government and all parties to agree to reconvene parliament and pass back-to-work legislation immediately," Guy said.
Nutrien Ltd. said it had curtailed production at its Cory and Rocanville potash mines in Saskatchewan due to the strike.
Manitoba Pork and Keystone Agricultural Producers say recovery from the first 13 days of the strike would have taken at least until the middle of October.
"We are already witnessing the negative consequences on our reputation as a reliable supplier. This is costing both farmers and our value-added processors. Jobs in every region of Manitoba will be impacted," KAP general manager Brenna Mahoney said in a statement.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre said Wednesday that Trudeau must end the strike immediately because of the massive cost to workers, consumers and businesses.
"We're calling on him to deliver a plan to end this strike within the next 24 hours," Poilievre said.
However, NDP transport critic Taylor Bachrach said it’s part of union bargaining rights to be able to reject an agreement.
"We know that their team is ready to get back to the table right away and we encourage other parties to do the same," Bachrach said.
"We are also renewing our call for the federal government to support the collective bargaining process, rather than resorting to the sort of back-to-work legislation that Liberal and Conservative governments have imposed far too often."
B.C. Premier David Eby said relying on Ottawa to bring in back-to-work legislation would not be a quick solution for a minority Parliament.
"The parties need to accept the responsibility that they have on both sides to come to the table in good faith and solve this for Canadians quickly."
Federal Labour Minister Seamus O'Regan and Transport Minister Omar Alghabra issued a statement late Tuesday saying workers and employers across Canada cannot face further disruption and that they were looking at all options.
The ministers said they have been patient and respected the collective bargaining process, but they need the ports operating.
"The deal presented to the parties was the result of a constructive and substantive collective bargaining process," the ministers said in their statement.
"It represented a fair and balanced deal. It was informed by weeks of collective bargaining and drafted by third-party mediators in the interest of both the union and the employer."
While national figures had their say, closer to the ports themselves, Prince Rupert Mayor Herb Pond said it was disappointing that the strike wasn't ending, after a “collective sigh of relief” when news of a possible deal came down.
Pond said local businesses certainly feel the impact when families watch their spending as with so many workers on picket lines.
”There are two major arteries that feed the Canadian economy from the West and it's Prince Rupert and it is Vancouver, and when you choke those off it won't be long until people feel that impact.”
— With files by Chuck Chiang and Craig Wong
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 19, 2023.
The Canadian Press