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All Sides in Trucker Dispute Want More Investigations of Companies

Trucking firms' payment violation records, obtained by Tyee, throw light on tensions.

Stanley Tromp 14 Mar 2014TheTyee.ca

Stanley Tromp is a Vancouver-based journalist. Find his previous stories published by The Tyee here.

While the strike by Vancouver container truck drivers drags into its second week, the dispute is being felt in many different ways. Port officials bemoan that millions of dollars are being lost each day, the Vancouver port's global reputation is at stake, and stores can't stock their shelves. Representatives of the various groups representing truckers are expressing frustration their demands aren't met.

A press release by one of the key players, the United Truckers Association, described the stakes this way: "This industry has been paralyzed and has been suffering from a lot of issues which have been directly affecting the truckers at the Port Metro Vancouver. Long lineups, lengthy wait times, incompetent rates, unfair port policies and undercutting of rates are among the top issues truckers are facing every day."

Meanwhile, Shafik Bhalloo, lawyer for the UTA, pushed back at allegations members of his organization has behaved violently during the dispute. "UTA truckers have been portrayed on the port's website and in the media as mugs and thugs -- these are people with families and kids! But not a single arrest has been made, and I have seen no real evidence of supposedly who did what." He is also worried for UTA president Manny Dosange: "Manny's life has been threatened and the RCMP is looking into that."

He laments that the Port Metro Vancouver's lawsuit against the UTA for alleged acts of violence was one of the main factors that prompted members of both the UTA and the Unifor-VCTA union to vote nearly 100 per cent to reject a last-minute deal by negotiator Vince Ready last Saturday.

To get a better picture of the various players and issues in this complex dispute, read this article also published on The Tyee today.

While the public focus so far has been mainly on demands surrounding payment rate levels and port wait times, there is another important factor less noted. Drivers, government and industry agree in principle on one point: that all drayage companies (who hire the drivers) should be audited to see if they are in fact following the employment regulations, and these audits should be published as a deterrent to other would-be violators.

Auditing needs to be expanded: PMV official

Port Metro Vancouver vice-president of operations Peter Xotta said auditing needs to be expanded. "Lack of auditing is what's causing the problem," said Bhalloo.

"If proper auditing was done, people would not be mistreated." Dosange added: "That's the reason we formed UTA. We want to houseclean, and get rid of kickbacks and undercutting. Now if a company is unionized they can't be audited, so some companies are setting up fake, in-house, so-called 'unions' to shield them from that."

The UTA also wants to set up a whistleblower policy for company drivers.

"The whole audit system is broken," said Gavin McGarrigle, B.C. area director for Unifor-VCTA, noting that the union had long asked for such reforms but saw no mention of them in the (still unpublished) Vince Ready accord of March 6.

Results of the audits

Truckers' wages are not set by Port Metro Vancouver (PMV) but by individual trucking companies. PMV asks the B.C. transportation ministry's Container Truck Dispute Resolution Program to conducts audits, to see if Full Service Operators (FSO) are paying Independent Operators (IOs) the minimum rates set by Vince Ready in a 2005 agreement. The audit system only covers IOs who are not covered by a collective agreement, and these are owner-operators who own their own trucks and are paid by the trip.

To allay complaints about a lack of transparency, the PMV a year ago began posting on its website its "Decision Digest," with summaries of such audits of IOs. Last year the PMV posted two summary reports online, on March 18 and July 17. These showed that Euro Asia's license was suspended for three weeks, and the firm was ordered to pay IO drivers $89,021 for loading fees, and company shares they bought in the value of $92,000. Euro Asia's related company Skywest Trucking Ltd.'s licence was also suspended for three weeks, and it was ordered to pay IO drivers $218,517 for loading fees, and company shares they bought in the value of $304,000. When Skywest failed to pay up, its license was terminated. (The owners for both appealed without success. The Tyee could not locate them for comment.)

Sanctions and warnings

Through an Access to Information Act request, The Tyee learned more details than are posted in the Digest about those and other companies that were studied by the program's investigator Michael Fleming last year. These include citations for payroll errors, flawed record keeping, cargo insurance premiums deducted from earnings, drivers not paid $200 call-out fees, nor a seven per cent fuel surcharge, nor the $50 fee for moving dangerous goods.

Then last week the Port posted its 2013 annual audit report which shows PMV received 30 recommendations from the program after its rate investigations. Most of the sanctions issued by PMV were warnings. These remain on the licensees' Truck Licensing System (TLS) record and if they violate the payments rules again, their licenses could be suspended or terminated.

The Tyee asked PMV for similar records from other years, and received in response a PDF spreadsheet of audits and sanctions, dating from March 2009 -- when the program started -- to February 2014. (Records from 2013 are not included in this PDF file, because they were posted in the annual report linked to from above.)

Audit scope expansion called for

Two days before Vince Ready forged his pact on March 6, the B.C. Trucking Association, or BCTA, proposed an eight-point "action plan" to ease long-standing complaints of cargo truckers and get the port moving again. PMV posted its agreement in principle on its website.

Item 4 of the proposals was to start audits of all trucking companies to make sure that every company that agrees to comply with the rates in fact does so. In reply, the port stated that it and the B.C. government also agreed that all companies should be audited, "and the audit process should be transparent and effective." The trucking industry will be expected to help define the parameters of the audit program, and help pay to expand it.

But Xotta was vague on what topics it should cover. "There are other issues here, such as terms of employment," he told The Tyee, "so we might broaden the scope to include union firms without necessarily reviewing pay rates." He added that the entire system is very complex, with 150 companies and 2,000 trucks or operators in the port, with a vast array of different employment arrangements, and auditing hourly rates is more complex than auditing trips.

The BCTA said it addressed all the complaints publicly voiced by drivers, and company owners share many of the drivers' concerns. Still, because the company owners had drafted the plan without inviting trucking union input, Unifor dismissed it as a "backroom deal" between the BCTA and Port Metro Vancouver. Dosange said the UTA tried to meet with the PMV and the terminal operators to address their issues but were rebuffed for seven months, "so the Port caused this strike."

Yako replies: "I find it offensive when it is called a backroom deal. We have a very open process that involves our company members, and they are perfectly capable of representing the interests of their workers." She adds that she has never talked to the UTA or Unifor and sees no need to.

The Tyee asked: If or when the audit scope was expanded to cover all companies, do you expect the violations found for them would be the same or worse than those already noted in the Decision Digest that affect IOs? Xotta and Yako said they didn't know. But Dosange was adamant: "The ones that have not yet been audited probably have much worse problems because they are hiding behind these false 'unions' that are controlled by the companies."

He added that the negative media view is that the truckers are responsible for undercutting, but it is really the companies instead, who also force kickbacks on the drivers. One of the in-house unions is under review at the Labour Relations Board now, where Unifor disputes its status as a "real union."

Unifor also wrote to the LRB to ask it to withdraw certification against the West Coast Truckers Union, but has not heard back. "We have no confidence in the LRB," says McGarrigle.

'Massive joint audit' requested by Unifor

There is another issue. In unpublished correspondence between Unifor and the Port officials last fall, Unifor pleaded for the PMV to "conduct a massive joint audit of all company drivers" working under the TLS system, to ensure they are in fact being paid by the hour, with the proper statutory deductions. Severe penalties, up to license cancellations, should be imposed on companies that misrepresented the true status of their drivers. That is, the union had "listened to many stories of owner operators masquerading as so-called 'company drivers,'" and had asked the Port many times for a "deep investigation" of the problem with no response.

Xotta told The Tyee he is not sure what Unifor means by "masquerading." Still, on December 16, he wrote back to the union that "PMV has begun a comprehensive assessment of TLS policies and procedures." He noted claims by Unifor and others that union firms are also rate cutting by various means.

Another major plea by the UTA is to have the same TLS rates apply to all companies: whether paid by the hour or by trip, that is, it should be all one way or another across the industry.

Independent owner-operators are especially irate about long turnaround wait times at the ports, because they are paid by the trip, not by hour. The BCTA's Louise Yako says shortening turnaround times at the ports helps everyone, for it allows the IOs the chance to make more trips day, hence more money, and so relieves the need to shift them to a per-hour wage to compensate for their losses from delays. She adds that the hourly model would not work well with IO s because there is no incentive for them to be productive. "If you know you will get paid if you move or not," she says, "what would cause you to move?"

McGarrigle replies: "But they still have the responsibility to do the job for the employer. Does that argument apply to all those work by the hour, like everyone else on the docks do? That is preposterous."

The BCTA also advises against paying IOs by hour "because that would turn them into employees. That's not their status, it doesn't make any sense." It contends that employee drivers, who are paid by the hour, are not affected by waiting times and industry undercutting, but the UTA insists they still suffer by having the same overhead costs.

'We never wanted this': UTA's Dosange

Today, even though the Port has promised to look into rate violators, union leaders hold little hope after eight years of what they called failures to enforce the rules.

Vince Ready is due to review and recommend on the trucking industry dispute by May 30, while the trucks remain parked. "This event has got the attention of the most senior officials in Ottawa," said Xotta. "The truckers should let Mr. Ready's study continue, and go back to work in the meantime."

McGarrigle says Unifor has a $135 million strike fund and so can stay out for a long time.

The non-union UTA members are not so well resourced, although Dosange says they are better prepared than they were in 2005. "Unifor may have a big strike fund, but it looks like UTA is doing most of the dirty work here. So far, Unifor is coming around with their banners and their pretty shirts, and they wrap up at 4 o'clock." He added that he sees no appetite amongst UTA members to join unions now.

Although the 2005 truckers strike lasted 47 days, Dosange says this one could well be longer: "All sides have dug in. But we never wanted this. We should work together to make this a leading industry."  [Tyee]

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