Vancouver shippers await drayage drivers’ response on whether they will strike

Mark Szakonyi, January 29, 2015, JOCcom

When it comes to whether Port Metro Vancouver will experience a crippling drayage strike like it did last March, the ball is in union and non-union drivers’ court.

 

The provincial government on Wednesday said it would make two changes to minimum drayage rates set to take effect Feb. 1. But Unifor, the union, and United Truckers Association, which represents non-union drivers, have not yet said whether the changes to the system aimed at reducing the undercutting of rates were enough to prevent a threatened strike. Drayage drivers have been threatening to strike for weeks if the province didn’t reverse changes to a plan agreed to in March — which ended last year’s three-week long strike —  to how minimum rates are set.

 

If a strike were to occur, it would affect mostly local cargo moving to and from the port and regional distribution centers. Shippers moving goods by rail into central or eastern Canada or into points within the U.S. would be largely unaffected.

 

Gavin McGarrigle, the Unifor area director for British Columbia, said the provincial statement regarding the two changes to minimum rates was “a positive step,” but the union, which represents 400 drivers at the port, said it needs to see the details first before determining whether the changes go far enough. Unifor is also questioning the criteria Port Metro Vancouver used in determining which drivers would be licensed and which ones would be left out, unable to access the port’s terminals.

 

The port on Friday notified 68 trucking companies that roughly 1,450 truck tags had been conditionally approved, leaving roughly 600 drivers out of the new licensing program. Tags were conditionally awarded based various criteria, including the companies’ ability to pay fees to fund the provincial auditing program, whether they could meet bond and insurance requirements, and if they met “basic” environmental standards.

 

Unifor continues to talk with the province and Port Metro Vancouver and is awaiting the final list of companies accepted in the new licensing program. UTA, which has more than 1,400 non-union drivers, didn’t return a JOC.com request for comment.

 

The province has agreed to remove a C$50 rate for moving containers between off-dock facilities within five kilometers after drivers complained that the rate was too low for what would generally be a much longer haul than 5 kilometers as the crow flies. The province also agreed to take out the $40 per trip for employee drivers and the hourly rates provisions for owner-operators. Drivers complained that the per trip fee had been added as an option for company drivers instead of just being paid $26.28 per hour after one year of service as agreed in the Joint Action plan approved last March, meaning they would be paid roughly $50 less daily via the trip model versus the hourly model. Most trucking companies were expected to have pay drivers per trip instead of hourly.

 

The province said labor mediators Vince Reddy and Corinn Bell, who played critical roles in forging the Joint Action Plan that ended the March strike have signed off on the changes. Once a container trucking commissioner, or “czar” is appointed, his or her first priority will be to review the round trip rates, as per Unifor’s request, the province said.

 

“The province, working with our federal partners and Port Metro Vancouver, is working hard to develop a structure that provides fair wages for truckers as we ensure this vital port continue to keep British Columbians working, our economy running and goods moving across the country,” British Columbia Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Todd Stone said in the statement released Wednesday.

 

Unifor said the port’s licensing criteria doesn’t do enough to weed out trucking companies that are undercutting rates. The port should have calculated how much back pay going back to April that each trucking company owes their drivers to gauge which players are the most egregious undercutters of rates, McGarrigle said. He said the port should have also given preference to drivers with more experience, as they are generally safer drivers.

 

Peter Xotta, vice president of planning and operations at the port, defended the criteria, saying the port worked for more than two years to hear from various parties involved in drayage, create a process that would balance their interests, and share the process. For example, the port implemented one of Unifor’s recommendations that trucking companies have a performance bonds so that there is restitution process for drivers if their employers “misbehave,” Port Metro Vancouver President and CEO Robin Silvester said.

 

“It’s been a tough process, but it’s been a good process,” he said.

 

Xotta also defended the port’s plan to require licensed trucks to be no older than 10 years by 2019, a mandate that Unifor and many non-union drivers oppose. With a commissioner setting rates, it’s important that those rates are based on a common playing field when it comes to the assets of trucks and required maitenance, Xotta said. The port is reviewing the timeline, though. The truck-age requirement will also spur companies to use their trucks better before seeking more tags.

 

“We want to give drivers a fair amount of time to depreciate their assets but we also want to make sure we haven’t got over-appreciated assets and there is a level playing field,” Silvester said.

 

Another strike would sent a negative message to port customers regarding Port Metro Vancouver’s ability to act as a Canadian gateway for trade and shows that all the time and energy spent on implementing the ambitious and groundbreaking 14-point plan was for naught, David Montpetit, chairman of the Western Canadian Shippers’ Coalition, told JOC.com.

 

“If the plan doesn’t work, then we are back where we were last year or even further,” as it shows even the involvement of the federal and provincial government couldn’t produce a solution, he said.

 

The fate of the Joint Action Plan also have implications beyond Canada. Drayage has shown itself to be a weak link in the international supply chain globally, with ports from the U.S., to India to China struggling with keeping their drivers, who have hit by longer turns times because of congestion, from walking off the job. Port Metro Vancouver has prided itself on launching a groundbreaking drayage program, which goes beyond any other regime arguably on a global basis in supporting the economic interests of drivers, but it yet to be seen whether it will be a model or warning for other ports.

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