Seaspan Tugboat Crews at Port Metro Vancouver Call for Strike Vote over DisputeTuesday, June 03, 2014 > 09:11:59
(Vancouver Sun – Derrick Penner)
Federal Labour Minister Kellie Leitch has flown to Vancouver in an attempt to avert the second major labour disruption this year at Port Metro Vancouver, this one involving tugboat operators.
The dispute is between Seaspan Marine, which is trying to cut some costs to remain competitive, and the unions representing crews on the company’s tugboats, who say the company’s offer would cut pay and benefits significantly. The federal intervention comes as the unions take strike votes that could put them on picket lines as early as noon on Sunday before the company imposes terms of a new contract on its employees effective Monday.
Leitch will meet with both sides in the dispute in Vancouver on Tuesday, according to her press secretary Andrew McGrath.
Tugboat operators escort and help berth vessels such as oil tankers and container ships, as well as tow barges. With Seaspan handling 70% of ship-docking and escorting work in the port, company CEO Jonathan Whitworth said, “the Asia Pacific gateway shuts down” if the company’s employees go on strike.
It would be the second major labour disruption at Port Metro Vancouver this year, following the 28-day work stoppage in March by port truck drivers.
The unions said they are fighting the company’s move to impose terms of new contracts, after eight months of negotiations and conciliation, that would cut benefits, pension contributions and re-write clauses related to premium pay and overtime that would cost them more than 20% of pay and benefits.
Whitworth said the company is offering its employees a raise in base pay, but needs more flexibility in overtime and scheduling and lower benefit costs to remain competitive with its peers, which have been winning work away from Seaspan.
Between the 2009 recession and the loss of five to six major contracts, including a major deal to haul wood chips for the Howe Sound pulp mill, Whitworth said Seaspan has “laid up, scrapped and sold a number of boats over the last five years that used to pull barges up and down the coast.”
Terry Engler, president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union local 400, said other tug operators on the coast operate under almost the same labour agreements and haven’t faced the same demands for concessions.
ILWU local 400’s last contract expired last Sept. 30. Engler said talks between his union and the company broke off in April, but Seaspan sent local 400 a letter May 26 warning the company will implement terms of their last offer effective June 9.
With 46 major changes from their previous agreement, Engler said the deal Seaspan intends to impose is “an entirely new document” that the union – which represents 350 deckhands and cooks on Seaspan tugs – hasn’t agreed to.
However, Engler added that the legal opinion the union has received is that there is precedent for what Seaspan is doing in the 2011 settlement of a strike and lockout at Canada Post. Postal workers were legislated back to work in that case, but Engler said the advice the union was given is that if unionized employees refused to work under the new terms starting June 9, without a strike vote, a walkout could be viewed as an illegal strike. And if they do work under the contract, but under protest, they could be deemed to have accepted its terms, he said. So ILWU Local 400 will hold a strike vote on Tuesday, followed by about 200 ship’s officers and engineers represented by the Canadian Merchant Service Guild, Western Branch, on Wednesday.
“We do not want to go on strike,” said guild president Mike Armstrong, adding that the union remains open to mediation or arbitration.
Engler said that if it secures a strike mandate, it would serve strike notice during “daylight hours” June 8, ahead of Seaspan’s midnight deadline to implement the new deal.
The dispute has become particularly bitter, with both sides launching actions under the Labour Relations Board. The unions have accused Seaspan of an illegal lockout for chartering two of its tugboats to an outside company to operate and do Seaspan’s work – something Whitworth said the company has the right to do under its contract. And Seaspan has filed an application accusing union members of illegal strike action for refusing to work overtime call-out shifts. Engler characterized the call-out shifts as “voluntary overtime,” and that individual members are choosing not to work them on their own without any direction from the union.