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Port deal targets long-standing issue: expert

Port deal targets long-standing issue: expertStriking container truck drivers stand by after parking their trucks in Vancouver, on March 21, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

VANCOUVER - An agreement that ended a strike by truckers appears to be a positive step toward fixing problems at Canada's largest port, a pair of experts say, but they caution there are still obstacles that must be resolved to ensure long-term labour peace.

More than 1,200 container truck drivers, including unionized and non-unionized workers, agreed to end their strike at Port Metro Vancouver Wednesday after intense negotiations with the B.C. and federal governments and the port.

The deal includes wage increases, fees for the time drivers spend waiting for containers, extended port hours, and increased enforcement to ensure shippers are following the rules.

The dispute, which began in late February for non-unionized workers and expanded to include unionized drivers on March 10, is the third strike to hit the port in the past 15 years. The port was affected by similar strikes in 1999 and 2005, in many respects dealing with the same issues.

Peter Hall, an urban studies professor at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., said the agreement seems to fix some of the main sticking points between truckers and their employers, notably wages and wait times.

"It is a serious attempt to address many of the challenges," Hall said in an interview.

"The caveat is that a lot of these things were said in 2005, but it wasn't followed up with enforcement."

This week's agreement, which is expected to be revised with the help of a labour mediator, sets a 12 per cent rate increase for drivers paid by the trip, as well as minimum wages for workers paid by the hour.

It also establishes fees for drivers who wait at the port for more than 90 minutes before receiving their cargo, starting at $50 and increasing every half-hour.

There will be increased auditing of shipping companies and a whistleblower system to allow workers to report violations of the agreement.

Hall said the agreement still doesn't close several "loopholes" that could allow rates to fall below the minimum.

Under the current rules, shippers can pay less than the minimum per-trip rates if they have a collective agreement with their drivers, which Hall said can push down rates for negotiated contracts.

In addition, the rates only apply to trips that begin or end at the port, meaning drivers can still be paid less, for example, if they move a shipping container from one warehouse located outside the port to another. The agreement says such "off-dock" trips will be discussed later, but there is nothing concrete.

"We don't yet know how those loopholes will be closed."

While much of the discussion about the agreement has focused on wages and wait times, Garland Chow, who teaches in the University of British Columbia's business school, said provisions to keep the ports open longer might prove more significant over the long term.

The agreement allows shippers to nominate one of four container terminals to extend hours, depending on volume, and it ensures terminals would be compensated if they lose money during those periods. The system would include a cost-sharing formula to manage risks associated with staying open longer.

Chow said there likely isn't much the container terminals can do to significantly improve their productivity, which leaves extending the port's hours as the most effective single measure to allow drivers to complete more trips in a given day.

"If you want to increase the turns and make the system more efficient, you've got to increase the gate hours," said Chow.

"The key to this (agreement) is that it's saying the shippers are willing to pay, so now the terminals are in a no-lose situation."

Manny Dosange of the United Truckers' Association of B.C., which represents more than 1,000 non-unionized truckers at the port, said the extended hours will be a major improvement when it comes to allowing truckers to deliver more containers and, in turn, increase their pay.

Many non-union drivers were off the job for nearly a month, without paycheques and facing threats from the port that their licences wouldn't be renewed. Still, Dosange insists it was worth it in order to get the new agreement.

"Something had to break sooner or later," he said.

"We have been at it a long time trying to address it without going on strike, but unfortunately, push came to shove and we had to go out."

About half of the container traffic through the port moves by truck, while the other half is transported by rail.

Container truck traffic was as low as 10 per cent of normal levels at the height of the strike and about 40 per cent last week. Since the agreement, those levels have increased to 80 per cent, the port said.

The rail container traffic, as well as cargo that isn't shipped in containers, such as coal and other bulk products, were unaffected by the strike.

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