By Leo Quigley, AJOT

One of Canada’s top mediators has failed in his attempts to settle a dispute between independent truck drivers who haul containers between the port’s four terminals: Deltaport, Vanterm, Centerm and Fraser Surrey Docks and customers throughout British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest.

While containers that move by rail or by long distance truck continue to move, container terminals are advising customers that they will have to begin turning away local import CY containers if the shutdown continues.

Negotiator Vince Ready has said he stands ready to look at any proposal and is no stranger to BC’s labor politics, having settled last year’s BC Ferries’ dispute by negotiating a seven-year contract for workers. But, a ferry strike, involving a single corporation and an established union, was a relatively simple task compared to the present situation involving 1,200 independent drivers and nearly 50 brokers who contract their services.

Most participants in Vancouver’s port industry, including the truckers themselves, recognize that independent truckers who move boxes are involved in a cutthroat, totally disorganized business.

In June 1990, independent truckers vented their anger by blocking border crossings between Canada and the US. Then, in July 1999, they parked their rigs for a month, wrecking havoc at terminals and seriously damaging the port’s reputation. On that occasion the drivers won an hourly wage, improvements in terminal efficiencies and a sophisticated appointment system.

While these hard won improvements reduced delays in the short term, it wasn’t long before cut throat competition once again undercut wages and, as the tidal wave of boxes from China hit Vancouver the terminals once again found themselves struggling to turn trucks quickly.

Skyrocketing price of diesel fuel, insurance rates and maintenance costs added to their problems and left most owner-operators with very little pay at the end of the day.

Since “owner-operator” drivers are not permitted to form a union, it has led to a situation where 1,200 unorganized truckers, calling themselves the “Vancouver Container Truck Association (VCTA)”, are attempting to gain a fuel surcharge and increased rates.

Tensions between employers, owner-operators and unionized truckers ’ who cross “information picket lines” to pick up boxes - have run high. Trucks have been damaged, death threats have been issued against Paul Uppal, head of the VCTA, and BC’s transport minister has warned that more violence could erupt at any time.

In the present situation the Vancouver Port Authority and Fraser River Port Authority can do little but stand on the sidelines Unfortunately, they are the big losers; both in reputation and performance as boxes pile up on the docks.

Most recently the VCTA proposed a one-year interim deal to Ready that includes an across-the-board pay rate of C$75 per hour with a minimum call-out time of four hours and a fuel surcharge of “at least 15%”. As the AJOT went to press it was not known if the companies who contract with the independent truckers will accept the offer. However, five of the companies that hire independent truckers, together with a large retail food chain, have now launched lawsuits against the VCTA claiming damages caused by the association’s so-called unlawful interference with existing contractual agreements.

Werner Knittel of the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, a long time port watcher, gives the Port of Vancouver and terminal operators full marks for their performance in dealing with the traffic increases over the past year.

However, he worries that with ruthless competition in the container trucking business, a band-aid solution to the disruption may only result in a reoccurrence of the stoppage one or two years down the road.