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Dockworkers, employers swap charges during contract bargaining

The union representing B.C. dockworkers (the International Longshore and Warehouse Union) is accusing the association that bargains for the province's shipping and stevedoring companies (the B.C. Maritime Employers Association) of trying to create an unnecessary crisis atmosphere as the two groups attempt to negotiate a new contract to replace one that expired in March of last year. A BCMEA spokesman, in turn, says the union wants "money for nothing."

These vitriolic exchanges were happening while closed-door negotiation sessions were being conducted, last week between the employers and ILWU Local 514 (foremen) and this week between employers and ILWU Canada. Together, the two union bodies represent more than 3,000 ILWU members who work in B.C.

ILWU Canada president Tom Dufresne told The Tyee on February 8 that he suspects the employer group is trying to create a false crisis in order to obtain legislative changes that would remove the right to strike and bargain freely from his members.

"This group has spent, I have been told, close to a million dollars lobbying in Ottawa to get changes in the labour code. The BCMEA is the 8th largest spender on lobbying the federal government," he said. "They want a system that takes away my members' right to bargain freely and imposes mediation and arbitration instead."

Dufresne said that the employer was spreading unnecessary alarm about prospects for an immediate strike and the costs of labour unrest on the docks to the B.C. economy.

"What they ought to do is get back to the negotiating table and bargain seriously," he said.

Greg Vurdela, BCMEA Vice President for Marketing, told The Tyee in a recent phone interview that the tension between his organization and the ILWU was already costing the B.C. economy money. A strike, he said, would cost the economy up to $100 million a day.

"We don't have all the figures yet," he said, "but we do know that some shippers have already diverted as much as half their traffic to Seattle, on concern about labour trouble, and others have diverted 10 to 15 percent of their freight south. When those shipments are trucked back to B.C., it adds up to a thousand dollars a container to shipping costs."

Vurdela said the ILWU was presenting demands in bargaining this week that echoed the recommendations of mediators Ted Hughes and John Rooney, which his organization rejected. Vurdela called the mediators' report, filed in September, "a silly document," and said that the union, in basing its demands on the Hughes/Rooney report, was asking for "money for nothing."

(The key recommendation of the Hughes/Rooney report was that the terms of the expired longshore contract be extended for two years with a modest pay increase while an industrial inquiry commission looked into outstanding issues between the parties.)

In a recent judgment, the Canadian Industrial Relations Board ruled that the ILWU has been conducting its bargaining in good faith, despite employer suggestions to the contrary.

Contributing editor Tom Sandborn covers labour and health policy beats for The Tyee. He welcomes story tips and feedback at tos@infinet.net.

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