Maritime employers agreed last week to end a lockout at Canada's West Coast ports that stalled millions of dollars in cargo shipments for eight days in a dispute over wages and the use of nonunion workers.
The British Columbia Maritime Employers Association (BCMEA)accepted a government mediator's recommended settlement soon after the leadership caucus of the International Longshore & Warehouse Union also endorsed the proposal.
The federal government had threatened to force a settlement on the two sides through back-to-work legislation if they did not end the dispute themselves last Monday.
Although the union's general membership did not vote until Tuesday, workers were set to return to the docks
as soon at the lockout order was lifted Monday afternoon, when the lockout was officially ended.
The lockout idled nearly all shipments through the ports - including Vancouver, the country's busiest, where an estimated $61.3 million a day in cargo handling was disrupted - and forced shippers
to divert to more costly U.S. facilities.
The government, which had initially been reluctant to intervene, took a high-profile role in the talks late the week before, with Labor Minister Claudette Bradshaw traveling to Vancouver to deliver an ultimatum to the two sides.
The government has now agreed not to introduce back-to-work legislation, and Bradshaw told the House of Commons that settling the dispute through negotiations was in the best interest of the Canadian economy.
The four-year settlement put together by a government mediator from the two sides' own proposals includes a pay increase of more than 9 percent over the life of the agreement as well as improved benefits.
The settlement did not resolve the most divisive issue - the use of nonunion testing workers at a Vancouver-area sulfur-loading facility - but contained "a mechanism" for settling the issue at a later date, according to union officials.
The lockout had stopped the unloading and loading of cargo containers, potash, sulfur, containerized grain, timber, pulp, petrochemicals, oil and general cargo. Bulk grain and most coal shipments continued uninterrupted because their transport is considered an essential service and covered under separate labor agreements.
BCMEA president Bob Wilds defended the employers' decision to shut down the ports on Nov. 7 as necessary because the union had refused to back down on the issue of nonunion sulfur testers in the negotiations. "It is unfortunate it took a lockout to get this agreement, but as we have stated previously it was something we felt had to be done," Wilds said.
Union President Tom Dufresne discounted concerns the labor disruption, one of several to hit Vancouver's port in recent years, would cause ships and shippers to avoid the port in the future as unreliable.
"I think getting the fourth year adds some stability and I think the shipping community appreciates that," Dufresne told Reuters.
The two sides had been discussing settling on a three-year contract
. The last collective agreement for the ports expired in 1998. - (Allan Dowd, Reuters)