VICTORIA – Striking truckers at Canada’s largest port reached a deal Wednesday to end a prolonged strike, which has left hundreds of millions of dollars worth of cargo stranded at Vancouver-area container terminals and prompted escalating pressure from the provincial and federal governments.
“This agreement means our port is open for business starting tomorrow morning,” B.C. Premier Christy Clark said at the provincial legislature in Victoria, after a flurry of meetings between government officials and the truckers.
“We had to sit down and look at each other in the eyes and realize we weren’t that far apart.”
Clark and two of her cabinet ministers — Transportation Minister Todd Stone and Jobs Minister Shirley Bond — could be seen shaking hands with union negotiators and congratulating each other as the talks wrapped up at the B.C. legislature’s Hemlock Room.
Clark said the deal means the government will withdraw back-to-work legislation it introduced this week. The legislation was slated to come into effect by Wednesday evening at the earliest.
“My view is very much you shouldn’t have a fight if you can get a deal,” she said. “We got a deal instead.”
The truckers had been scheduled to hold a morning news conference to respond to back-to-work legislation that was on its way to becoming law, but the event was repeatedly delayed.
Unifor president Jerry Dias said the union had planned to tell the government it was prepared to defy the back-to-work law.
But officials with Unifor, which represents about 250 unionized truckers, and the United Truckers’ Association of B.C., which represents more than 1,000 non-union workers, spent hours holed up with provincial government staff and cabinet ministers.
“This is by far the most complicated set of negotiations I’ve ever been involved on,” said Dias, after the agreement was announced.
He said the bargaining involved 180 different companies, 1,200 non-union truck drivers, 350 union drivers and two levels of government.
“So, trying to get agreement is difficult, he said. “But what changed today was the willingness to listen. The key thing was the desire to find resolve.”
Dias thanked Clark and her cabinet ministers, and he criticized the federal government for fighting the truckers rather than negotiating. He said if it was up to Ottawa, Vancouver’s port would be closed tomorrow.
United Truckers’ Associating spokesman Manny Dosanjh thanked Unifor for standing together with the non-union truckers and he thanked Clark and the federal government.
Federal Transport Minister Minister Lisa Raitt said in a statement that she is pleased with the agreement.
“Our economic prosperity, competitiveness and ability for our products to reach new markets depends on a well functioning port,” she said.
“We will continue to work with the British Columbia government and Port Metro Vancouver to ensure truckers get back to work and keep our economy on track.”
The province’s back-to-work legislation would have affected unionized workers, but the port warned all striking workers that they wouldn’t have expiring licences renewed if they didn’t return to their jobs.
The dispute largely focused on issues related to pay, including rates, unpaid time spent at the port waiting for cargo, and allegations of undercutting within the industry.
B.C., Ottawa and the port put forward a 14-point plan two weeks ago in an attempt to allay the truckers’ concerns, but the workers quickly dismissed the proposal as inadequate.
The deal reached Wednesday focused on the 14-point plan but contained improvements for the truckers.
The union and non-union truckers agree to return to work and Port Metro Vancouver agrees to rescind all trucker licence suspensions where no criminal charges were laid against drivers. The federal government will increase trip rates by 12 per cent and wait fees for truckers at the ports will be increased.
The deal also includes agreement that mediator Vince Ready will be appointed to issue recommendations on the 14-point plan. which will be reviewed, made final and acted upon within 90 days of a return to work.
B.C.’s premier and Prime Minister Stephen Harper each warned the dispute was threatening the country’s economy.
The union previously said it wanted a higher wage increase. It also demanded fees for wait times to kick in after only one hour, instead of two, and for those fees to increase over time.
Port Metro Vancouver issued a statement Wednesday afternoon, before the deal was announced, hailing the 14-point plan as the best way to end the dispute.
“There are financial wins in the plan for truckers,” port CEO Robin Sylvester said in the statement.
“There is also assurance that increased rates will be paid through better auditing of trucking companies. 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.”
The statement also said the port was concerned about “alarming reports of physical violence, threats and vandalism involving local truckers.” The union and truckers’ association have previously denied any wrongdoing in response to such accusations.
The truckers don’t directly work for the port. They are typically independent contracts, sub-contractors or direct employees of shipping companies.
Trucks account for about half of the traffic in and out of the port, with the other half moving by rail.
Earlier in the strike, the port said truck traffic was at about 10 per cent of normal levels, though it had increased to about 40 per cent last week.