Nearly 1,000 North Vancouver dock workers are on furlough as a battle between tug operators and their employer cripples one of the country’s largest shipbuilding operations.
The federal government has stepped in to try to resolve a dispute between Seaspan and 165 striking tugboat workers, who were joined on picket lines by other unions at the North Vancouver Maritime Monolith shipyard and drydock.
The vast majority of these workers are not themselves on strike, but have refused to show up for work in solidarity with the tug captains and engineers of the Canadian Merchant Navy Guild, who have declared a stalemate at the negotiation table at the end of August.
The company has since gone to the BC Labor Relations Board and the BC Supreme Court to have the picketing declared illegal, without success. The result is that work in the shipyards, where employees were fulfilling billion-dollar contracts for the Royal Canadian Navy and the Canadian Coast Guard, has come to a halt.
So while other tug companies have largely taken over from striking operators for Seaspan, it is the company’s shipbuilding arm that is taking the biggest hit from the action.
For weeks, neither the company nor the guild spoke publicly about what exactly went wrong at the bargaining table. The Tyee heard that the parties could not reconcile differences over wages, a new work schedule system and safety concerns, escalating into a dispute that now affects around 1,000 employees and one of the most major shipbuilding and tug operations in the province.
“This is not the resolution we want,” Seaspan communications director Ali Hounsell said. “It’s not where we want to be. This is not where anyone would rather be.
Trouble at the water’s edge
There is no normal day for a tug crew.
Seaspan’s 30 boats carry cruise ships to port. They carry massive cargoes of chemicals and oil. They are the worker ants of the Port of Vancouver, a vital link in Canada’s supply chain.
Seaspan, one of Washington’s companies, is nicknamed “the big red machine,” in part because its fleet of tugboats is one of the largest and busiest in the port. The work requires years of training and experience and workers are scarce.
The last collective agreement of these workers with Seaspan expired three years ago. Negotiations began in early 2020 and were delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
When they return to the table, the differences will prove irreconcilable. Hounsell said the union’s offer is “far beyond what they can afford” without making the business unsustainable.
“This is well outside the agreements we have had with our other Seaspan shipping units this year,” she said.
She said growing competition at the port means accepting the union’s proposal could destroy the very jobs they are trying to protect and improve. “It’s an offer that doesn’t really allow us to have a sustainable future for the shipping industry,” Hounsell said.
The Merchant Seaman Guild of Canada has not responded to multiple phone calls and emails sent since last Tuesday. Guild members told The Tyee that the two sides initially agreed not to speak to the media about the terms of the dispute.
But The Tyee spoke to union members with knowledge of the negotiations who asked not to be identified, as well as communications that highlight a deep division with the company’s position.
In a brochure distributed to members, the guild said Seaspan’s proposal would “offer wages far below industry standards and current inflation levels” and create changes to the work system that would “reduce staff , would increase risks and increase operator fatigue”.
They also refer to changes that some union members fear will affect jobs and environmental safety.
Union members say Seaspan has offered to replace tug engineers with personnel who have obtained a separate federal certificate. It’s legal, but union members fear it could affect engineers’ jobs and increase the risk of an environmental accident, given that these tugs sometimes transport chemicals and oil along the coast of Province.
“We will always comply with Transport Canada regulations and requirements,” Seaspan spokeswoman Jessica Gares said. “Our proposal is fully compliant and enables us to make the business more sustainable and competitive.”
Enter the Feds. Seaspan’s tug operations are federally regulated. In September, government mediators joined the parties in an attempt to find their way back to the bargaining table.
“Last week both sides met with someone from the federal team and unfortunately there was no progress as a result of that,” Hounsell said Sept. 29.
The strike and picket halted work on several massive federal contracts. Vancouver Shipyards was completing one of two non-combat vessels it is building for the Canadian Navy, a contract valued at billions, and a separate vessel for the Coast Guard.
A Department of National Defense spokeswoman told The Tyee she was not concerned about the delay.
“At this time, active construction of the vessels is not underway, but design and engineering work continues,” wrote Canadian Coast Guard spokesperson Barre Campbell. “It would be premature to comment on potential impacts on the construction of the vessel and the current delivery schedule of 2025.”
Federal Labor Minister Seamus O’Regan’s spokesman said he was following the dispute closely. “We urge the parties to come to an agreement at the table,” Michelle Johnston wrote.
Hot dogs and uncertainty on the line
On a crisp Wednesday morning, Becky Lupton was spending another day on the picket line. Electricians, pipe fitters and welders read books, chat over coffee and enjoy hot dogs and hamburgers prepared on two separate grills. One of them passed a hat, trying to raise money for a pizza.
Most of these shipyard workers are not on strike but have refused to cross the picket line in solidarity with the guild.
Seaspan went to the BC Labor Relations Board arguing that this constituted an illegal strike. But council vice-chair Stephanie Drake denied the request.
“The respect of a picket line is fundamental to union solidarity and has long been recognized and enshrined in the Code as an exception to the definition of a strike,” she wrote on September 15.
The company then took the case to the Supreme Court of British Columbia, seeking an injunction that would prevent the tugboat workers from setting up picket lines. The North Shore News was first to report that Judge George MacIntosh denied the request last Tuesday.
The news was well received on the picket line, where members of various locals threw a Frisbee and drank cups of Tim Hortons coffee. Some wore T-shirts with the slogan: “2% is for milk, not for salary increases”.
Seaspan estimates that around 900 employees did not show up for work.
Hounsell said this caused work to stop at the shipyard. She said it has also affected the business of the drydock, which among other things carries out emergency repairs for some ships.
“We have to remember the impacts on people here. It’s 165 people impacting nearly 900 people at the shipyard,” Hounsell said. “It’s not their fight, it’s not their strike.”
On Monday, Seaspan’s lawyers were back before the British Columbia Labor Relations Board, asking them to reconsider their earlier decision that upheld the legality of the picket line.
Lupton, president of Local 213 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, hopes negotiations will resume so the picketing can end. She blames the company for the delay and fears the wait will force some of her union colleagues to seek work elsewhere.
“We still hope the company will contact us and start trading with CMSG again,” Lupton said. “At the end of the day, we respect a picket line and we will continue to do so. But there are certain realities that everyone faces after a certain amount of time. I think a lot of people look at their tools and maybe find another job.
Paul Hilder is the chairman of the Council of Marine Carriers, which represents members of the tug and barge industry, including Seaspan, where he served as vice-chairman until 2021.
Hilder says the acrimonious dispute comes amid opposing forces for both sides at the negotiating table.
“There are the external pressures on the business, the competition coming into the market and the high cost of doing business. And there is the reality for the employee of living in British Columbia and Vancouver in general with current inflation and the cost of living. It’s tough on both sides,” Hilder said.
This is not the first time that the union and the company have clashed. In 2014, the parties agreed to federal arbitration.
Hilder said arbitration, while an option, has never been the ideal way to resolve a dispute like this.
He noted that Seaspan’s tug fleet is one of the largest at Vancouver’s docks. For now, he said, other tug companies could likely absorb the excess work. But he hopes everyone will be back to work soon.
“Hopefully the parties can come back to the table and find a negotiated settlement that’s fair to both parties rather than having one mandated, which is never good,” Hilder said. “Nobody comes out happy when that happens.”