Prince Rupert Source Prince Rupert Port Authority
Source Prince Rupert Port Authority

The renewed strike at 30 Canadian ports has been called off, for now, after a see-saw of work and walk-outs.

The past 36 hours have been a rollercoaster for anybody involved with cargo flowing through the ports in British Columbia, with the strike by longshoremen flipping between resumption and being called off.

As of noon yesterday, it is off, within hours of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) calling it on.

It is unclear though, how the situation will evolve. The federal government has signalled that it wants to end the stand-off and is examining its options. The prime minister’s office convened a meeting of its crisis cabinet committee yesterday to discuss the situation.

Port workers returned to the picket line on Tuesday afternoon, after ILWU members rejected a deal, brokered by a federal mediator, tentatively accepted last Thursday by the union and the British Columbia Marine Employers Association (BCMEA).

The ILWU members felt the terms of the agreement were not sufficient to protect jobs now, and in the future.

The BCMEA challenged the resumption of the strike as illegal, claiming the union had failed to provide a 72-hour strike notice. The ILWU argued that the strike was ongoing, so notice was not required. However, yesterday the Canada Industrial Relations Board (CIRB) ruled  in favour of the employers’ claim, and declared the strike unlawful.

Federal labour minister Seamus O’Regan promptly tweeted: “This strike is illegal.”

Mr O’Regan, who had pushed for the tentative agreement, signalled on Tuesday evening that the government was losing patience with the continued stand-off. In a joint statement with transport minister Omar Alghabra, he declared: “We have been patient. We have respected the collective bargaining process. But we need our ports operating.”

The pair called the tentative agreement “a fair and balanced deal”, adding that Canadian businesses and workers could not face further disruption.

The Canadian Chamber of Commerce and Canadian Federation of Independent Business called on Ottawa to pass back-to-work legislation. The government had faced calls for such a measure from the outset of the strike on 1 July, but insisted that a negotiated agreement would be the best outcome.

Such a step would require a recall of parliament from its summer recess, and would take a heavy toll on the ruling government alliance. While the Liberal Party, the senior partner in government, would presumably vote in favour, the National Democratic Party has indicated that the right of a trade union to reject an agreement should be respected.

For now such a clash is not going to play out, after some zig-zag moves by the ILWU. In response to the CIRB ruling, the union issued a new strike notice, which would kick off a new work stoppage by Saturday morning, according to the BCMEA. But a few hours later, it reportedly withdrew the notice “with immediate effect”, according to ILWU Canada president Rob Ashton.

The union said it withdrew the notice in the hope of a return to the negotiating table, and expressed regret for the economic impact of the dispute. By some estimates, the strike has cost the Canadian economy C$500m (US$379m).

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