Members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Canada on their legal picket line Sunday at the Port of Vancouver.
Members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Canada on their legal picket line Sunday at the Port of Vancouver. Credit: Peter Lahay / Facebook Credit: Peter Lahay / Facebook

The strike by 7,400 longshore workers in Vancouver, Prince Rupert, Nanaimo and Port Alberni is no exception to the rule that news reporting of labour disputes impacting West Coast ports tends to unfold according to a predictable, misleading formula.

There doesn’t even need to be an actual work stoppage for this to happen. 

Merely the occurrence of collective bargaining with the implicit risk it could end in a strike is enough to get employer groups to claim the union won’t bargain and Conservative Prairie premiers to demand Ottawa intervene immediately to force the employees to keep working no matter what. (Plus, of course, to own the Libs, since ports come under federal jurisdiction.) 

Certain assumptions are typically made, and never questioned, in these reports. 

The current strike, which began on Saturday, is the first in Vancouver in nearly three decades. Never mind that, though, all the elements of the Vancouver port negotiations Kabuki theatre were in play within hours.

“The association representing employers in an ongoing strike at British Columbia ports says it doesn’t think more bargaining is going to produce a collective agreement,” The Canadian Press hyperventilated in the lead of its main story on the dispute yesterday. 

So why take the employers’ word for it? This is what port employers always say. It’s standard bargaining procedure – all the better for them because it often works. 

In fact, if you read the story carefully, the British Columbia Maritime Employers Association, which represents 49 shipping companies and port operators on the West Coast, said the opposite. 

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union Canada, according to the employers’ group, “went on strike over demands that were and continue to be outside any reasonable framework for settlement.”

That, of course, is just typical labour relations rhetoric everywhere, literally business as usual, signifying nothing.

“Given the foregoing mentioned, the BCMEA is of the view that a continuation of bargaining at this time is not going to produce a collective agreement.”

Therefore, the employer group asserted, “ILWU Canada needs to decide if they are going to continue this strike with no hope of settlement, or significantly modify their position so a fair and balanced deal can be reached.”

In other words, if you think about what was actually said by the employers, it’s that more bargaining isn’t going to produce a collective agreement because they won’t budge.

So the employers’ obvious hope – which is guaranteed to be supported uncritically by the usual business groups, corporate-financed right-wing think tanks, and instantly hysterical Conservative Prairie premiers – is that Ottawa will intervene immediately to keep the ports open because the employers themselves won’t negotiate! 

Media – especially nowadays when there are so few reporters assigned to pay attention to labour law, labour unions and labour disputes – parrots this uncritically, ignoring the contradictions right in the statements before them.

So, let’s look at this another way: 

If so much damage is being done to the national interest (that’s still a big if, with the strike only in its early days) that the strike must be ended immediately, and if, furthermore, the employer group has in effect admitted that is because it refuses to budge to reach a reasonable compromise its employees could live with, shouldn’t any back-to-work deal that is imposed by Ottawa give the workers what they want? 

Of course, this would occur to no one involved in this ritual.

But it’s not because the workers are wrong in their arguments that they were the ones who took the risks to keep the ports open during the pandemic, that it’s their families who are now forced to deal with post-pandemic inflation, that they have legitimate concern about long-term job security, or that it’s time for their employers to share some of the massive pandemic profits they made during the pandemic thanks to their employees’ work.

The assumption by virtually all journalists at this point in the discussion is that if the ports are to reopen, as all the usual suspects demand, it must be on the employers’ terms. No further thinking required! 

Now, let’s consider what Alberta Premier Danielle Smith had to say. 

“This past weekend 7,400 workers began strike action across ports of British Columbia, immediately disrupting Canadian and global supply chains,” she complained in a statement published on Twitter but not on the Government of Alberta website. 

“Our government is monitoring the situation and echos (sic) the concerns of various business groups on the negative impact this will have on the Canadian economy, including increased inflationary pressures on consumers,” she continued, defaulting to supporting the employers and their Greek chorus of sympathizers.

The premier’s tweet also linked to a Globe and Mail story that quotes the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, Canadian Chamber of Commerce, and, of course, the B.C. Maritime Employers Association. 

Smith concluded: “We urge the federal government to work with all parties to ensure a rapid resolution to the dispute.”

Which is precisely what the federal government is doing, by trying to encourage the parties to reach an agreement through collective bargaining. 

Needless to say, all this is highly ironic coming from a provincial government that refused to intervene in the illegal 17-day Coutts border blockade in 2022 while it cost the Alberta economy an estimated $44 million per day. That same government is now led by a premier who lionizes the blockaders and other convoy protesters as heroes, and has even interfered with the administration of justice to get one of them off the hook for criminal activities.

Well, I guess there’s no danger of United Conservative Party MLAs and Conservative MPs from Alberta joining the strikers on their legal picket lines in B.C. bearing gifts of coffee and doughnuts, as they did in Coutts and Ottawa. 

Can you imagine the ruckus if a Liberal or NDP politician did show up to support the strikers at the Port of Vancouver?

As for the union, it warns that if the federal government forces a deal dock workers don’t like on them, “there will never be labour peace on the waterfront.”

If there is anything to be learned from the history of the Vancouver waterfront in the first half of the 20th century, that could very well turn out to be true. 

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...