Dockworkers in Canada Have Shut Down the Country’s Critical West Coast Ports

Longshore wages and job security have declined while profits for terminal operators on Canada’s west coast have soared. Now 7,400 workers from the International Longshore and Warehouse Union are striking across 30 ports, fighting against job and wage cuts.

A picket line at the dispatch center during a dockworkers strike in Vancouver, British Columbia on July 5, 2023. (Jimmy Jeong / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

A strike is underway in British Columbia, with seventy-four hundred workers from the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) representing thirty ports. The strike is against the British Columbia Maritime Employers Association (BCMEA). Combined, the workers have the potential to shut down over one-third of Canada’s export-led economy.

In the union’s last agreement, from 2018–22, the general wage for the port workers rose 12.5 percent from $42.85 to $48.23 per hour. While the deal for portworkers may have been comparatively better than that of many other workers, the Bank of Canada’s calculator notes that inflation totaled 13.87 percent during that same period.

Meanwhile, the port owners have raked in a fortune. According to the BCMEA’s own financial statement, its revenues rose steadily over the same period from $268,087,975 in 2018 to $330,333,797 in 2022. And the ILWU reports that the top five companies represented by the BCMEA collectively earned over $100 billion in profit in 2022, marking a 1,500 percent increase since 2019. In spite of these outsize gains, management is looking to cut staffing.

Wage Cuts and Job Cuts

According to its 2022 annual report, the BCMEA resolved to cut down its “labor demand needs throughout the year.” To this end, the association intends on using more approximate “forecasting information” and management practices in order to seek “continuous improvement through enhanced communication, coordination and collaboration with terminal operators and other key stakeholders.” This is a gentle way of describing management by stress — through automation, contracting out, and speedups.

Earlier this year, the ILWU raised concerns that the push to expand the Roberts Bank Terminal 2 port in the Salish Sea as a “semiautomated facility” will, as noted by the Tyee, accelerate potential job cuts. “It’s going to force the rest of the terminals to automate faster than they were doing it otherwise,” ILWU Canada president Rob Ashton said. “This is going to destroy a lot of people’s livelihoods.” The union has pushed back against bosses’ automation schemes and fought against job cuts, but the BCMEA has refused to budge.

According to a leaked study by Prism Economics and Analysis obtained by the union, the employers’ proposal on automation could potentially lead to job cuts of up to 50 percent at certain sites, affecting both the break bulk and container sectors. This scenario assumes that workers would still be present in the dock area and that ILWU operators would directly operate the cranes, with only container shipping being automated, not bulk shipping.

Technological unemployment,” is often portrayed as an inevitability, out of the hands of both capital and labor. But the reality facing ILWU portworkers is that automation is being employed to undermine the power of the union and to leave the longshore men and women in a state of desperation. The employers are seeking to automate to reduce their ports’ demand for labor. That is to say that, rather than make its existing workforce more productive, BCMEA owners aim to cut jobs and force the remaining workers to pick up the pace. The resulting situation could very well increase workloads rather than decrease them.

Such strategies reflect the usual hue and cry from bosses everywhere. During downturns, wages and jobs must be cut to match sinking demand. And, when demand picks up, wages and jobs must be cut to manage the company’s labor demand needs.

“The employers and their bargaining agent, the BCMEA, have repaid our hard work and dedication with demands for major concessions,” Ashton notes in the union’s press release. “Their only objective is to take away rights and conditions from longshore workers after having gorged themselves on record profits during the pandemic.”

Shutting Down the Ports

After voting 99.24 percent in favor of strike action, the seventy-four hundred workers walked off the job on July 1. According to business groups, the combined thirty ports, including the Port of Vancouver, move over sixty million tonnes (approximately sixty-six tons) of goods every year, accounting for over $500 million every day. But this is likely an underestimation. As RBC Economics notes, the Port of Vancouver alone is the fourth-largest logistics hub on the planet, accounting for $275 billion in trade revenue every year and roughly one-third of all Canadian exports to destinations outside North America. Combined, the ports move at least one-quarter of Canada’s total traded goods.

The impact of the strike quickly left BCMEA reeling. After thirty-three consecutive hours of negotiations, the talks between the two parties “temporarily” paused on the evening of July 2. At which point, the BCMEA told CBC News: “This labor disruption has shut down operations at the vast majority of [British Columbia]’s marine terminals for five consecutive work shifts, damaging supply chains across the country and immediately impacting Canadians and businesses.”

This is a prime example of the power of the working class. Through social labor, workers produce, store, and deliver the wealth of society — from food to fuel to various manufactured items — and keep society running. Indeed, as the BCMEA boasts on its own website, “As much of our industry is built around metal and machines, the shipping business has always relied on people to keep the supply chain moving. And it’s this human side of the shipping business that we do best.”

The outsize salaries enjoyed by management is derived from the labor of their essential workers. The profits are not generated through the owners’ own efforts, but rather through the implementation of speedups, wage cuts, and the exploitation of their staff.

Fighting “Back-to-Work” Legislation

After three days on strike, business groups are already demanding that the federal government legislate the portworkers back to work. Previously, the federal Liberals have used the same draconian legislation in 2018 to force postal workers back to work  and again in 2021 to force dockworkers at the Port of Montreal to end their strike.

“We can’t let this drag on,” said Matthew Holmes, a senior vice president with the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, on Sunday. “We need the government to intervene, and we need them to intervene quickly . . . and force back-to-work legislation if that’s required.”

So-called back-to-work legislation is a misnomer. The legislation, which has been overturned by Canada’s courts a number of times, does not send people back to work. Rather, it takes away their democratic right to not show up to work. It is a violation of the most basic rights to free association and assembly. But it has shamefully become the norm for Liberal, Conservative, and New Democratic Party governments across Canada whenever and wherever workers exercise their rights to shut down their workplaces and happen to succeed.

In 2016, the Supreme Court even codified this principle when Canada’s postal workers challenged their back-to-work legislation. The court asserted that despite the charter protection of the right to collective bargaining, the legislation could be deemed acceptable if the government can establish a “pressing and substantial” need for it. In other cases, such as the provincial government’s battle with educators in Ontario last year, the legislation to suspend the right to strike was packaged with the “notwithstanding clause,” exempting Ontario’s education workers from their constitutional protections in general.

The cases demonstrate that the risk of legislated back-to-work orders are real and that workers can’t rely on the courts to protect themselves. As labor historian Larry Savage put it: “Counting on the courts to protect labor rights was always risky, but if governments are going to start using the Notwithstanding Clause to override Charter rights, legal strategies become even less effective for the movement.”

Instead, the best protection against attacks is to escalate the fight. ILWU president Ashton has said as much when he asserted that “the federal government must stay out of our business. . . . If the BCMEA gets their way, and their way is to let the [federal] government make the collective agreement for them, there will never be labor peace on the waterfront.”

The dockworkers’ face-off with BCMEA requires the whole labor movement to stand in solidarity with the ILWU — fighting against job and real wage cuts for all. This fight is against job and wage cuts that affect all workers. If successful, the strike will empower workers to take control of the ports and the products they generate, countering any attempts to reduce their wages or eliminate their jobs.