Discover more from The Red Review
Lessons of the West Coast Longshore Strike
by Stephen Crozier -
As I began to write this, 7400 members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) were voting on a tentative collective agreement recommended by the ILWU executive, negotiated with the BC Maritime Employers’ Association (BCMEA), under the looming threat of the Canadian Industrial Relations Board (CIRB). I wondered whether the rank and file would accept this latest deal. After all, they rejected the last one on July 28, just one week previously; however, it was announced that 75 per cent of ILWU members voted in favour of this collective agreement.
The matter is no longer in doubt. The contract has been accepted by the membership although details have not been released. What is yet to be resolved is how working people will respond to what this particular process revealed about the present state of labour and collective bargaining in Canada. For decades, union members have pretty much, with some brave exceptions, followed the union leadership. However, in this case, it appeared workers were sending a message to their leadership and to their employers that they would freely exercise their constitutional right to make their own decision regarding a collective agreement.
Throughout the strike, the baying of the employers, the business media, the Pierre Poilievre Tories, and billionaires across Canada could be heard at the heels of the Trudeau government to give them cover for high pressuring the union members to settle.
The strike began on July 1, Canada Day! Immediately, business groups were asking federal Labour Minister Seamus O'Regan's to “end the strike”. Of course, to them this meant “order the longshore workers back to work”. After all, these workers were “essential”.
In Canada, when workers are deemed “essential”, employers and boss party politicians claim their constitutional rights to strike can be abrogated. Apparently, it is only when their work is deemed of little value to profiteers, that workers retain those rights.
To his credit on July 4 (mind you, three days after the strike began), O'Regan stood up for collective bargaining saying, “... it's how the best and most resilient deals are made.”
NDP Leader, Jagmeet Singh was much clearer. “I'll unapologetically stand with any and every worker fighting for a job that helps pay the rent, cover groceries, and build a life for their families. ILWU workers have my complete solidarity. Together, we can get workers the respect they deserve and crush CEO greed.”
O’Regan’s stance would be short-lived. Apparently, it takes more stamina than this “labour” minister could muster to stand for more than three days with workers walking the picket line. Within a week, O'Regan appointed a federal mediator and gave both the ILWU and the BCMEA 24 hours to accept a proposal, quashing doubts about his commitment to “the best and most resilient deals”. Both parties accepted.
However, according to the ILWU's constitution, the 70-member contract caucus has to vote in favour of any proposed agreement before it is put to members to ratify or reject. This body voted against the proposal on July 18. Sources say it was rejected because one of the sections in the proposed contract contained a statement about keeping “normal maintenance work” within the union, and this language was thought not strong enough to prevent contracting out, something employers had done time and time again. What is “normal”? Keeping maintenance work for ILWU workers had been the critical issue from the beginning of negotiations.
Picket lines went back up at 4:30 p.m. that same day since they had only been taken down as a show of good faith when the federal mediator had been appointed; however, that was a mistake because the BCMEA complained to the Canada Industrial Relations Board (CIRB) that another 72-hour notice must be given before the picket lines could be reestablished. The CIRB in a novel decision, agreed, declared the strike illegal and that the picket lines must come down. The union is challenging this decision in the courts.
At this point, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that he was “looking at all options.” O'Regan tweeted, “Every effort has been made. But this cannot go on”. He was talking about less than a week’s effort.
So much for the sacrosanctness of collective bargaining. The table was reset. True to form, the Liberal government was sticking to its “principle” that if you can't negotiate one of “the best and most resilient deals” then shove an unpalatable one down the throats of workers.
It would appear the union leadership bent under this pressure. What else would explain the flip-flop? At any rate, the leadership withdrew the strike notice and voted in favour of recommending the tentative agreement to the members.
But on July 28, it was announced that the rank and file said “No.”
The very next day, federal Labour Minister Seamus O'Regan threatened to put the CIRB, the board that had forced the ILWU to take down their picket lines, in charge of negotiations with the power to impose a contract, or at least subject the sides to binding arbitration. Of course, the employers had already accepted the deal rejected by the ILWU, so who is being threatened by the “labour” minister? “The best and most resilient deals” indeed!
By Sunday night, July 30, another deal had been reached, apparently with better language to protect jobs. Ginette Brazeau, chair of the CIRB, required all five local presidents to sign a letter to be sent to the membership endorsing the agreement. The order went on to state the following:
The Board reminds ILWU leadership that it can be considered an “unfair” labour practice for union leadership to unanimously support a settlement agreement and subsequently change its position through the ratification process.
This shows that the CIRB was either ignorant of the ILWU constitution requiring the 70-member caucus to approve a tentative agreement before being sent to the membership, something they should have known, or that they chose to ignore it.
That same day, ILWU President Rob Ashton issued a statement:
While ILWU Canada recognizes the need for a competitive and efficient maritime industry, this should not displace skilled and experienced workers who have dedicated their careers to ensuring the smooth functioning of Canada’s West Coast ports. We are deeply concerned that, if unchecked, this practice will lead to an erosion of our workforce and expertise, ultimately jeopardizing the stability and efficiency of Canada’s maritime industry.
Meanwhile, business associations continued to complain about the billions of dollars of goods kept on hold and that Canada is no longer considered a reliable trading partner because of the actions of the ILWU.
The media and the government never called on the bosses to give the workers the assurance they wanted regarding job protection from contracting out and automation.
In fact, in 2022, an estimated $300 billion in goods went through BC ports. What business associations and our governments don't seem to understand or accept is that it was the ILWU workers who handled this $300 billion in cargo. The stevedores do the work, and they have been working without a contract since March. Clearly, when the stevedores stop working, the work, moving billions of dollars of cargo, stops. It just did.
The BCMEA stated that the proposal rejected on July 28 would have given workers a 19.2% salary increase over 4 years. That's a 4.8% increase per year, which sounds impressive until you consider that Canada's compound inflation rate so far this year is about the same, down from 6.8% last year. And those increased prices do not go down, meaning ILWU workers have already lost ample purchasing power.
On July 3, two days after the strike began, the BCMEU put out this statement:
BCMEA employer members are proud to provide well-paying family-supporting jobs for B.C. longshore workers. For context, in 2022, the median salary of an ILWU Union long-shore worker in B.C. was $136,000 per year, plus benefits and pension.
WorkBC reports that long-shore workers earn $98,852 per year, between $24.50 and $55 an hour.
Meanwhile, a fact you have not seen in the news during this dispute was uncovered in a study done by Dr. Jim Stanford, economist, and director of the Centre for Future Work, situated in Vancouver. There are six companies that control 70 per cent of world shipping, and all six are members of the BCMEA. The financial information for five of these companies is publicly available; they posted profits of over $100 billion in 2022 alone, up a staggering 1,500 per cent since 2019. During this three-year period, longshore workers salaries increased by less than 10 per cent.
Stanford goes on to report:
Clearly, labour is not the source of rising costs in marine shipping, and the resulting inflation. The greed of shippers and terminal operators, who took advantage of an economic and health emergency to fatten their bottom lines, is the source of the problem. Yet now business groups blame workers for disrupted shipping.
During the dispute, Bea Bruske, the president of the Canadian Labour Congress, wrote that when the sides are left alone, bargaining is often more efficient:
External interference in collective bargaining for the sake of expediency, convenience and/or optics, only undermines this important process and often delays a positive outcome.
She did not call for solidarity in action against the intimidation campaign of the federal government, or a general walkout in the face of threatened federal strike-breaking action. In truth, that is what is needed to uphold the constitutional right to strike.
So, when is there no interference with collective bargaining? Big employers always want back-to-work legislation, urge media to foment public pressure against workers, and, failing all else, they want scab labour. Why?
Because the unity of workers in unions is powerful. Bargaining collectively instead of each worker facing the boss alone, has transformed the lives of workers and their families. Strikes, withdrawing our labour and cutting off the pipeline of profit is a powerful tool. To weather the inevitable storms of boss laments, media bashing and government threats, a pre-strike campaign to win the support of other workers and unions, to build wide solidarity increases the power of strikes many-fold.
It is not publicly known how the union fared in its fight for job security against contracting out and automation. But we can point to a powerful demand in the fight against job losses. Shorten the work week. Share the labour among all the workers. For example, 28 hours work for 35 hours pay with no cut in benefits. Why should increased productivity go to profits? It should go to workers.
The fact is that without the support of the legal, economic, political, and educational juggernaut which is the Canadian state -- hidden by a wizard's curtain, if you will, but more iron than cloth -- business groups would face the fact that alone they are weak against workers. The longer a labour dispute goes on free from outside interference, the clearer this and the power of labour becomes. One day longer; one day stronger! And this latest labour dispute proves it once again; it showed how the weakness of the employers required increasing pressure from outside, from the Canadian state.
Far from being essential, business leaders are impediments to progress. They would gut life on the west coast with automated ports, giving no benefits to workers who have built and sustained them, just as industrial farming has gutted life on the prairies, that industrial fishing has gutted life in the maritime provinces, and that industrial logging has decimated forests and gutted life in the communities that depend on them.
Finally, solidarity is central to the labour movement. If WorkBC's information on ILWU wages is correct, they range from $24.50/hour to $55/hour. That's the difference between a living wage and one in the mythical middle class. Add to this the fact that not all ILWU members have equal voting rights; employers have driven a wedge deep into solidarity. An injury to one is an injury to all. Far be it for working people to seek to injure one other.
There are only two classes on the waterfront: the working class and the capitalist class. It is essential that workers do not let the mythical “middle-class” label cloud their judgment about who they are.
Concluding his address delivered to the General Council of the International Working Men's Association on June 27, 1865, Karl Marx proclaimed:
Trade Unions work well as centres of resistance against the encroachments of capital. They fail partially from an injudicious use of their power. They fail generally from limiting themselves to a guerrilla war against the effects of the existing system, instead of simultaneously trying to change it, instead of using their organized forces as a lever for the final emancipation of the working class, that is to say, the ultimate abolition of the wages system.
Might it be time to shred the wizard's curtain, the state’s “juggernaut”? Truly, the emperor has no clothes unless workers make them for him. It is time to put down the needle and the thread ... and lose our chains.
*Stephen Crozier is past president of the New Westminster and District Labour Council, and a member of Socialist Action in White Rock, B.C.