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Legislation threat fails to stop port strike

Legislation threat fails to stop port strikeA worker drives past cargo containers stacked beneath cranes at Port Metro Vancouver in Vancouver, B.C., on Thursday March 13, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

VANCOUVER - The threat of back-to-work legislation and a warning that striking truckers at Vancouver-area ports could lose their licences failed to convince them to return to the job Thursday, as a costly dispute at Canada's largest port appeared no closer to ending.

More than 1,000 non-unionized workers have been off the job since late last month, while several hundred Unifor members joined them on March 10. The strike has meant only a small fraction of container truck traffic has been moving in and out of the port.

The B.C. government plans to introduce the back-to-work legislation to target the unionized workers as early as Monday, while the port said both unionized and non-unionized truckers whose licences are about to expire won't have them renewed if they don't return to their jobs.

Gavin McGarrigle of Unifor suggested the latest attempts by the government and the port to force an end to the dispute won't work.

"What I'm hearing from some of the members on the picket line is they're considering going to jail," McGarrigle said Thursday at the entrance to Vanterm, a container terminal in Vancouver, where striking truckers were picketing.

"They're saying, 'If we can't make any money and we can't move forward, then we've got to stand up for our rights.' I don't know where (the back-to-work legislation) will take us, but I know that it's not helpful to achieving a negotiated settlement."

McGarrigle said it was too early to comment on what exactly the truckers will do once the back-to-work law is in place or whether the union is prepared to risk penalties that will likely be included in the legislation.

The United Truckers' Association of B.C., which represents non-unionized workers, couldn't be reached on Thursday, but the group has said some its members have already vowed not to return to work.

The non-union truckers walked off the job in late February, and they were joined by the unionized workers on March 10. Last week, the workers rejected a government-backed proposal that included 14 measures designed to allay their concerns.

B.C. Transportation Minister Todd Stone said there would consequences if the unionized truckers don't abide by the back-to-work legislation, though he hasn't specified what those would be.

The legislation will include a 90-day "cooling off" period and will also ensure a veteran labour mediator who was appointed earlier this month will remain involved.

The port has notified roughly 150 truckers whose licences were already set to expire in March or April that those licences would not be renewed.

Instead, the truckers must apply under a new licensing system, which was among the measures in the government's 14-point plan.

The port's vice-president of operations, Peter Xotta, said truckers who are not prepared to return to work won't have their licences renewed.

"We only grant those to people who need to access port facilities — it seems odd to us that we would be giving permits under the new licence regime to folks who are not planning to be participating," Xotta said in an interview Thursday.

"Those licences and permits are a privilege, not a right. ... We really need to have this port operating, so we're going to take steps to ensure we're doing that."

Port Metro Vancouver, which is Canada's largest port, is made up of a number of facilities in and around Vancouver. The strike is affecting the port's four container terminals.

The port has said about 30 per cent of its container cargo is transported by truck, while the other 70 per cent is moved by rail.

Of the truck traffic, the port says its terminals saw about 36 per cent of normal traffic on Wednesday — a significant increase from a week earlier, when the number was between 10 and 15 per cent.

By mid-day Thursday, traffic was nearly 40 per cent of normal — the highest it's been since the labour dispute began, said the port in a written statement.

The truckers are not employed directly by the port. They are a mix of independent contracts, sub-contractors and employees working directly for shipping companies.

The main issues in the dispute have focused on wages, unpaid time the truckers spend waiting for cargo, and allegations that some truckers and shipping companies have been undercutting rates.

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