Longshore union negotiators will brief workers about a new tentative collective agreement with employers, ahead of a two-day vote on whether to approve the deal that could finally bring an end to British Columbia’s long-running port dispute.
The International Longshore and Warehouse Union Canada says on its website the vote will take place Thursday and Friday and reiterates that the group’s leadership caucus is recommending acceptance of the deal to its 7,400 members.
It says a “stop work” meeting will be held Wednesday morning at the union’s Vancouver headquarters, with members of the contract negotiating committee answering questions and all members encouraged to attend.
The dispute over a new collective agreement included a strike from July 1 to 13 that froze cargo movements in and out of 30 port terminal and other sites in B.C.
Labour observers are urging caution ahead of the vote, saying there’s a history of union members rejecting deals struck at the negotiating table.
A previous tentative agreement was rejected by ILWU members last week, and University of Manitoba associate professor of labour studies David Camfield said such outcomes remain a possibility. Workers involved in the Ontario Metro supermarket strike also voted down a negotiated deal.
Camfield said union members rejecting a negotiated deal may be becoming more frequent in the short term.
“I think what we’ve seen is a reminder that no one should take for granted what the outcome will be on a ratification vote,” he said.
“There’s often an assumption that workers will just vote in favour if their bargaining committee, their leadership, is recommending that they accept a deal.”
“I think that’s the single most notable feature of those two strikes, that workers’ expectations are higher than they would have been several years ago, and they are showing that they’re not prepared to settle for what’s being put before them.”
The ILWU and the BC Maritime Employers Association said on Sunday they reached the new agreement with the help of the Canada Industrial Relations Board.
Federal Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan had directed the board to decide if a negotiated settlement was possible, or if a deal should be imposed on both sides, after union members voted against the previous negotiated deal.
O’Regan said at the time the government was “prepared for all options and eventualities,” amid calls for back-to-work legislation from other political and business leaders.
Camfield said the tight labour market with low unemployment rates may contribute to workers feeling confident enough to reject deals. Rising living costs could also push up expectations for compensation and other benefits.
Union labour lawyer Don Eady said while he could not comment on the specifics of the disputes in B.C. and Ontario, he agreed with Camfield that both disputes showed workers are exercising their legal rights to get what they believe is fair.
Eady said some people may have been caught off-guard when the ILWU twice rejected a deal reached at the negotiating table, once in a leadership caucus vote on July 18, then in the full membership vote that concluded on July 28.
But it doesn’t mean the bargaining process is broken, he said.
“That would be an internal union process,” he said. “And unions are entitled to set up whatever internal processes they want for the negotiation and approval of collective agreements.”
Eady said while members rejecting a deal negotiated by their union isn’t typical, it can and sometimes should happen to protect workers against threats such as automation and rising living costs.
“If a company is able to get around the collective agreement by contracting out work, bringing in other people or automating things that used to require people to do them, it affects the overall job security of union members both currently and in the future,” he said.
Eady said recent inflation has complicated matters, with members likely to worry about long-term agreements that could lock in wage increases that fall behind rising prices.
“Nobody knows whether inflation’s going to be 20 per cent or 2 per cent in year four or five of an agreement,” he said. “So longer-term agreements are problematic if what they contain is a set cents- or dollars-per-hour increase, or percentages increases.”
“All of these things put pressure on union members and employees generally, and the only way that they can really fight back is to go out on strike and to fight for their rights.”
A member of the union bargaining committee on Monday recommended the latest deal for ratification after opposing a previous agreement.
Rickey Baryer, vice-president of the port workers union’s Local 500 chapter, posted on Facebook that he is “proud to recommend” the latest negotiated deal.
Baryer said in a now-deleted Facebook post ahead of the vote on the previous tentative agreement that it had been “forced” on the union by the government and would have been “the beginning of the end of our very existence.”