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Tugboat strike averted at port, but still possible

A possible strike by two unions that represent tug boat crews against Seaspan, the company that provides 70 per cent of tug service within Port Metro Vancouver, was temporarily averted this week, with one of the two unions involved -- the Canadian Merchant Service Guild, which represents captains and other officers -- agreeing to binding arbitration at the urging of the federal labour minister.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union local 400 representing deck hands and cooks, however, has not agreed to arbitration and emphasized that it has a strong strike mandate from members. It threatened to serve notice of impending job action if the employer tries to impose new contract language.

Seaspan tugs haul barges, escort oil tankers under the Second Narrows Ironworkers Memorial bridge, and haul or push freighters, container ships and cruise line ships into docks and back out into open water.

The two unions saw their last negotiated contract expire in fall 2013. Seaspan planned to impose 46 new contract changes on June 9, which the unions had opposed. An ILWU spokesman said the changes would effectively destroy the hiring hall system (which sees the union dispatching its members to various ships and companies), slash company contributions to pensions and create dangerous working conditions due to over-long shifts.

A Seaspan spokesman has said the contract changes are necessary to improve the company's competitive position.

ILWU local 400 president Terry Engler expressed gratitude to Labour Minister Kelly Leitch for flying to Vancouver and intervening in the dispute this week.

"We want to negotiate a fair collective agreement, and with good will and some help from Minister Leitch that is possible, but we had a unanimous vote from our members to take job action if necessary," Engler said in a statement.

The federal labour minister said she was pleased that Seaspan and the Canadian Merchant Service Guild worked together to agree upon a mediation-arbitration process.

"This cooperation allows the employer and employees to continue their important work at the Port, uninterrupted, and further contribute to Canada's international competitiveness."

As part of its agreement with the Guild, Seaspan said it would defer implementation of its new collective agreement, which was scheduled to take effect on June 9.

Speaking with the Tyee, Engler said his union hopes to negotiate an acceptable contract this month. If those efforts fail, he warned, his members might have to take strike action.

"For a year and a half now, Seaspan has been working an agenda -- a plan to impose new contract language that would essentially de-unionize us, cut our benefit plans by half and bring in 'flexibility,' which would mean members working more overtime and thus being exposed to increased dangers of injury due to fatigue."

Seaspan, Engler said, is trying to "take us back to the 1940s, and we won't let them do that."

Seaspan did not respond to a request for comment, but the company's CEO Jonathan Whitworth* told the Surrey North Delta Leader on June 2 that "the company is no longer cost competitive against 'aggressive' rivals" and the revised employment terms are "necessary changes to improve our competitive position and ensure our future viability."

Whitworth said that savings from the new contract would either flow to customers via lower rates or be reinvested into the fleet, which needs an injection of more than $500 million.

*Name corrected June 8 at 9 a.m.

Tom Sandborn covers labour and health policy news for The Tyee. He welcomes your feedback and story tips at [email protected].

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