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VIEW: Port resolution a huge win for Unifor

Premier Christy Clark's dramatic eleventh hour agreement with striking port truckers -- who paralyzed Port Metro Vancouver for four weeks with an innovative bargaining strategy that relied on protest, not picketing -- was an unqualified victory for Unifor, Canada's newest national union.

When Unifor national president Jerry Dias led a delegation to Victoria March 25, he fully expected to hold a news conference denouncing back-to-work legislation that was put before the house that day.

What's more, he told government leaders privately, their back-to-work legislation would be defied by striking truckers who had already overwhelmingly voted on a framework for settlement.

Clark, to her credit, executed a sharp course correction, suspended the bill and began bargaining.

It was the union's framework that formed the basis of the agreement the premier announced later that day, starting with a no-reprisals pledge that applied to most of the strikers.

The big losers in the dispute: businesses, both local and international, who rely on the port to function, but found Port Metro Vancouver missing in action when its confronted its truckers for the third time in 15 years.

Port-watchers had been forecasting the dispute for months, pointing to the imminent expiry of Unifor's agreement, which flowed from a similar dispute in 2005.

Anger was building over wait times, fuel costs and relentless rate-cutting, but port managers simply looked the other way and insisted "we are not the employer."

Their strategy was simple: sit on their hands and wait for senior levels of government to ride to the rescue with legislation.

But Unifor, formed last year in a merger of the Canadian Autoworkers and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers, did not make it easy for them.

The union and non-union truckers withdrew their services but did not picket the port, leaving longshoremen and other port workers idle, but still on salary. Port traffic dwindled to a trickle, but there was no basis for legislation on that front.

Nor could Victoria or Ottawa do anything about the job action by Unifor members, who represent several hundred of more than 1,000 drivers. It was entirely legal under provincial law.

It was clear the dispute would escalate when the truckers rejected a proposed settlement drafted by mediator Vince Ready, whose intervention had helped end the 2005 dispute.

But those responsible for the port in Vancouver, Victoria and Ottawa refused to deal with the truckers, despite their repeated calls for negotiation.

When Unifor leaders like Gavin McGarrigle, the union's B.C. regional director, realized no one was prepared to bargain with them, they put together their own proposal for settlement and had it ratified, first by their own members and then by the United Truckers' Association, which represents most of the fleet.

It was that settlement that Dias presented to Clark. She ran with it.

The new deal, to be tweaked by Ready in follow-up talks, will see truckers enjoy significant improvements in waiting time pay, fuel surcharges and minimum hourly rates that Ottawa will require from all companies licensed to deliver to the port.

Some of these reforms will require legislative change. Many require the port to take further action. Several require the port to pay fines for excessive delays of truckers, money that ultimately must be collected from the terminal operators or shippers.

Equally significant are the changes that McGarrigle hopes will end the relentless rate-cutting that has dogged the port trucking sector.

It is this rate-cutting that has been at the root of the three major strikes endured by the port in the last 15 years, a time when the port wrung its hands about the reputational cost of labour disputes but did nothing to stabilize the trucking sector until forced to.

Ready is also empowered to recommend serious changes to the Container Truck Disputes Office, which until now could only recommend sanctions to the port, recommendations the port usually ignored.

All of these changes are ones the Port could have undertaken without a strike and a shutdown.

The agreement is a big victory for Unifor president Dias, now just over six months on the job, and for Clark, who relishes opportunities to stand with labour leaders in a photo op. (It cannot hurt that she has had broad support from the Surrey Indo-Canadian community, which many of the truckers call home.)

Once the crisis began and the port ground to a halt, Port Metro Vancouver went into panic mode, seeking court orders, implementing "accelerated" plans that should have been in place years earlier, and declaring the health of the Canadian economy was at risk.

It was too little, too late. The truckers, union and non-union pushed their advantage and came away with a major victory, one that Victoria and Ottawa effectively dictated to Port Metro Vancouver in the face of a united and defiant workforce.

The new agreement, which includes both senior levels of government and the port, promises to deliver the stability in the trucking sector the port was unable to achieve on its own.

The strike highlights the weakness of the leadership at the port, which is becoming increasingly insistent that its interests should trump regional concerns over agricultural land, coal exports and tanker movements.

If Port Metro Vancouver is this tone-deaf in its labour relations, who will have confidence in its handling of other big files?

Geoff Meggs is a Vision Vancouver city councillor.

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