By Rob Ashton
Rob Ashton is the President of The International Longshore and Warehouse Union Canada
We’ve been fairly successful in keeping COVID-19 off the waterfront. In the longshore industry we’ve been able to, from March to March, keep it to about 140 positive or presumptive cases out of 7,000 people. We have really good protocols in place on the waterfront that we’ve developed over the last year, most developed jointly, some by the union locals. Each local has their own protocols with the employers. If we do have a bit of an uptick, if someone tests positive, it gets squashed quickly because of the policies we have in place. We changed the way we do dispatch in a couple of the locals until the pandemic is over because we can’t all come into one place for dispatch now, so some locals went to an automated or phone dispatch. Everybody does the check-in at the start of the shift. There are cleaning crews at most sites, almost every shift, depending on the terminal.
Now with the vaccines, the provincial government is vaccinating in different workplaces, and they have forgotten about our people who work on the docks, bring the ships in, dispatch the ships’ pilots, work in the grain terminals, everybody that’s associated with the transportation industry. When we are in bargaining and there could be a strike or lockout, the government gets upset that there will be a half a billion dollar loss every day and its “oh my god, the shutdown, we can’t let them do it,” but when it comes to vaccinations and the possibility of shutdowns due to COVID-19 they have forgotten us. In the longshore industry if 15 people who do key jobs in the industry go down with COVID-19 an entire terminal could be shut down. We drafted a few letters and co-authored a few letters with the Port of Vancouver and our employers, so far with no response from government. This is causing a lot of stress to our people. Every day you’re living with a ticking time bomb. Everybody in our industry knows the ramifications of an outbreak, something those in power that administer the vaccines, don’t understand. Every worker who wants the vaccine should get it, grocery store workers, emergency services people, health care workers, and all the people who keep the economy going, in the transportation industry, bus drivers, taxi drivers.
About the situation in Montreal: what the workers there are fighting for is a better work/life balance. Right now a longshore worker in Montreal is forced to work 17 to 19 days in a row without the right to take any time off. Imagine what this does to a family. Workers don’t see their families for days on end and can’t go to medical appointments. If they don’t work they can be disciplined. What the employer is saying is that they have no right to complain because they are making good money. That’s fine and dandy but they want a life too. They’re fighting for what unions have fought for forever — eight hours of work, eight hours of play and eight hours of rest. They started picketing on the weekends because the employers kept messing with their schedules and disciplining workers. If the Maritime Employers Association (MEA) had just agreed to negotiate last year none of this would have happened. They have to defend themselves and the only way to do that in contract talks is to withdraw their labour, which is a protected Charter right. Now the employer doesn’t have to do anything, can just sit back while the government steps in and imposes a contract. The first year they were in bargaining they were at the federal labour board, the Canadian Industrial Relations Board (CIRB) because the employer was saying that they didn’t have a right to strike because they were essential to keeping everything going, and the board ruled that they are not essential, the employer was wrong. That took a year. And there was no bargaining in that time so now we have this happening where the employer is still not bargaining, they’re actually stoking the flames by adjusting work rules which is forcing the union to react. Now the government for all intents and purposes are neutering the union with this legislation.
There are very close ties between the Liberal government and the MEA. The employer’s lawyer in that CIRB hearing was Nicola di Iorio, former Liberal MP for Saint-Léonard–Saint-Michel in Quebec from October 2015 to January 2019. He was working as an advisor to the MEA in 2018 when they were trying to deny the workers’ right to strike.
The MEA is doing the same thing as some BC hotels, taking advantage of the pandemic situation to mistreat the workers. They are definitely taking advantage of the situation and so is the Canadian government.
Right now the federal government is by trying to bring in new security regulations. The government recently told us they are possibly looking to change the regulations that they have on security background checks that they put some of our workers through, the ones who work with cruise ships and certain jobs in container terminals. Now they want every worker that works in marine cargo handling facilities to have extensive background checks done and we are asking them why. There is no evidence that we’ve been made aware of that longshore workers are a security risk. They are treating us like criminals.
At a recent meeting I asked the government “Are you doing this at this time because we allegedly can’t hit the streets because of the pandemic? Are you trying to steal our voice from us? You haven’t done this in the last 20 years and you picked this year to do it? It’s awfully convenient that we can’t hit the streets and shut down cities or fly across the country to talk to MPs.” They just shrugged their shoulders. This is another battle we have to fight.
Workers’ Forum, May 4, 2021
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