By Leo Ryan, AJOT

Talk about a sleeper. For many weeks this past winter and spring, the waterfront negotiations in British Columbia were going through the usual scenario of every three or four years - with continued deadlock forcing the entry of a federal mediator and port officials decrying the start of cargo diversions to US Pacific Northwest competitors. Then, on May 4, a bombshell: the announcement of an unprecedented eight-year collective agreement between British Columbia’s maritime employers and the union representing 4,500 longshore workers. It was quite justifiably widely hailed by stakeholders for ushering in a new era of waterfront stability that will significantly strengthen Canada’s already well-launched Asia-Pacific Gateway Initiative.

“Not only is this comprehensive agreement unique in North America, its very duration of eight years may be unique in the world,” commented Greg Vurdela,VP Marketing of the BC Maritime Employers Association (BCMEA).  “The length of the agreement brings the kind of stability that the stakeholders in Canada’s Asia-Pacific Gateway can retail around the world,” Vurdela stressed.

After qualifying the agreement as “a magnet to attract infrastructure dollars,” Vurdela suggested that the overall cost was “reasonable” in the current competitive port environment in North America.

The previous agreement expired on March 31, 2010. Prolonged uncertainty over the negotiations had once more diverted an unspecified volume of container and bulk cargo to US Pacific Northwest ports. Officials from notably Port Metro Vancouver and Prince Rupert had complained about being constantly held hostage to contract disputes every couple of years. “It’s tremendously positive for the future of Canada’s whole Pacific Gateway Initiative and for capturing growing North American trade with Asia,” said Robin Silvester, President and CEO of Port Metro Vancouver, the leading Canadian port. “It underwrites the strength of investments in the gateway by the private and public sectors.”

“The eight-year stability is great news for our gateway,” said Tim McEwan, President and CEO of Initiatives Prince George Development Corporation. Northern British Columbia’s biggest city, Prince George has in the past few years been transforming itself from a regional hub to a strategic logistics centre between North America and Asia, anchored on a CN intermodal terminal with direct rail service to the Port of Prince Rupert.

Industry observers also consider the historic agreement offers Canadian West Coast ports more ammunition as alternatives to US ports on the West Coast in the event of labour conflicts or congestion issues. Prince Rupert and Vancouver, in particular, have excellent intermodal connections with the US Midwest and beyond to Memphis and the Gulf of Mexico. (However, as this issue of AJOT was going to press, an informed source indicated that some BC maritime stakeholders felt that although an eight-year accord offered stability, the Association’s negotiators did not obtain sufficient guarantees of longshore productivity improvements or a desired mandatory dispute resolution mechanism. There were thus, some dissenting voices, among employers voting on the agreement.)

Some 130,000 jobs across Canada, including 48,000 in British Columbia alone, are associated with the Pacific Gateway initiative.

According to the BCMEA, the agreement has a total cumulative cost increase of 22.85% over the term of the accord set to expire on March 31, 2018. During this period, the average all-in annual cost increase, including wages and benefits, is estimated at 2.6%. A base wage rate of C$34.51 per hour is to advance in stages to $42.01 by 2018.

The agreement also contains a major new program for maternity and paternity leave – a feature that drew special praise from Tom Dufresne, President of the International Longshore Warehouse Union Canada (ILWU). “Making longshore workplaces more attractive as a place of employme