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Port waiting for union in truckers strike

VANCOUVER - Vancouver's port remained crippled by a truckers strike Friday, as union officials refused to say if they were prepared to agree to a government-backed proposal aimed at ending the dispute.

A day after the federal and British Columbia government's released a proposal designed to allay the drivers' concerns, it was unclear whether the strike, which the prime minister warned is threatening the country's economy, was any closer to a resolution.

Roughly 400 unionized truckers went on strike earlier in the week, joining more than a thousand non-unionized truck drivers who walked off the job last month.

Gavin McGarrigle of Unifor, which represents the unionized truckers, suggested the governments' proposal, as delivered, may not be enough.

"There are a lot of questions that need to be answered in this document, and there are also some glaring holes," McGarrigle said in an interview.

"I think we'll have some serious pointed questions."

McGarrigle declined to discuss his specific concerns, but he said the union had requested a meeting with federal officials for Friday afternoon.

The United Truckers' Association of B.C., which represents the non-unionized workers, did not return repeated calls seeking comment.

The governments and the port released details of the 14-point proposal Thursday evening.

Under the proposal, regulated wages would increase within a month, followed by a full review of wages and fuel-surcharge rates by next year. The port has also committed to ending a lawsuit it filed against the truckers and renew suspended licences, so long as those suspensions didn't involve suspected criminal activity.

The labour dispute has largely focused on issues relating to pay, including the truckers' wages, the amount of unpaid time they spend waiting for cargo at the container terminals, and allegations that some truckers and shipping companies are undercutting rates.

Peter Xotta, vice-president of operations for Port Metro Vancouver, said the port and its container terminal operators are ready to ramp up operations as soon as the strike ends.

"What we expect to happen is that folks will be reviewing the contents of the commitments and proposals and our view is they will find it largely addresses the concerns that have been raised," said Xotta.

"Given where we're at, having lost two weeks of productive capacity, all of the terminals will be doing everything possible to return to normal as quickly as possible."

Port Metro Vancouver, which is Canada's largest port, leases government-owned land and terminal space to private operators. The port is made up of a collection of facilities throughout the Vancouver region and the strike has affected the port's four container terminals.

The striking truckers are not employed directly by Port Metro Vancouver, but rather are typically either independent contractors or sub-contractors working for shipping companies.

The port estimates the strike has affected about $885 million worth of cargo per week.

Trucks transport about half of the containers that move in and out of the port, while the rest are moved by rail. The port has said only about to 10 to 15 of normal truck traffic has been getting through and the situation hadn't changed on Friday.

Xotta said the port is concerned some customers that may have already found alternate ways to ship their goods into the country might not return.

"The port has thousands of users, and each one of them is assessing their supply chain alternatives," he said.

"In many cases, when someone tries a new alternative and it's successful, it kind of sticks."

Eric Waltz of Terminal Systems Inc., which operates the Deltaport and Vanterm terminals, said the strike has been costly and must end.

"We need trucks to return to full service tonight, tomorrow, tomorrow night, this weekend," said Waltz.

"If it doesn't happen that immediately, then we would be challenged with receiving the cargo."

The port says the strike has predominantly affected shipments destined to local markets in the Vancouver area or B.C.

Some businesses have publicly complained they are being charged hefty fees to store cargo that's been stuck at the port. Such fees are the responsibility of the terminal operators.

"In this case, we work with each customer individually to see how we can accommodate the costs and have a fair system for picking up the cargo," said Waltz.

Meanwhile, CN Rail obtained a temporary court injunction Friday that orders striking truckers not to interfere with the company's operations at a container yard in Surrey, southeast of Vancouver.

The rail company filed a lawsuit earlier in the week seeking a permanent injunction and damages. The lawsuit alleges striking workers have been blocking traffic to the facility and intimidating other drivers.

The union and the truckers' association have denied any wrongdoing.

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