Protesting container truckers reached an agreement during a lengthy meeting with a veteran labour mediator, narrowly avoiding ramped up job action at Canada's busiest port.
The truckers are represented by Unifor's Vancouver Container Truckers' Association (VCTA) and the United Truckers Association, a non-profit group with both unionized and non-unionized members. Members of the latter walked off the job on Feb. 26 to protest industry undercutting and long wait times at the port, which they say cut into their pay. The Unifor-VCTA members voted 100 per cent in favour of job action for the same reasons and were in a strike position on Thursday at noon.
However, early in the morning, Transport Minister Lisa Raitt announced she had appointed Vince Ready – the mediator requested by Unifor-VCTA – to conduct an "independent review" of the situation with an aim to resolve it. He met with representatives from both groups early Thursday morning and the parties emerged in the afternoon with a tentative agreement.
"We are pleased to say that we have reached an agreement that we will take to our members no later than this Saturday, which we hope, subject to approval of our members, will lead to a complete return to work at the ports in Vancouver," said Gavin McGarrigle, B.C. area director for Unifor. UTA members will also be voting on the recommendation package.
Mr. McGarrigle called the federal government's appointment of Mr. Ready "a significant step." In 2005, the mediator helped end a six-week strike over similar issues.
Details of the agreement have not been made public.
In the meantime, Unifor-VCTA members will not raise picket lines as a sign of good faith, Mr. McGarrigle said. UTA members will continue with job action, said spokesman Manny Dosange.
"Our people are non-unionized," Mr. Dosange said. "What our people have been doing is, for the last seven months, trying to get to the table. … Our people have taken out credit lines, second mortgages and borrowed money for diesel. They need some [assurance] that if they're going back to work that they're going to have income coming in."
All sides – the truckers, trucking companies and the port authority – agree that wait times at the port are problematic. The truckers wanted to be compensated for time spent idling, while the companies and port authority suggested extending gate hours at terminals and staggering shifts to avoid congestion.
The dispute had grown ugly in the past week, with allegations of protesting truckers damaging trucks and harassing truckers who chose to keep working.
Port officials say operations have already been "severely impacted" due to the protests, with truck activity dropping about 20 per cent since job action began a week ago. However, the volume of cargo being moved has slowly begun to increase, and the port is optimistic operations will improve further next week.
The port authority estimates that about $885-million worth of cargo is moved locally by truck each week.