03/10/2014 08:25 EDT | Updated 05/10/2014 05:59 EDT

Port Metro Vancouver strike stops 90% of container truck traffic

Port Metro Vancouver says the disruption to its operations from a strike Monday by up to 400 container truck drivers and the non-unionized drivers who have joined them is having a dramatic effect on the ability of terminal operators to move goods. 

“Goods are not moving and that is bad news for consumers and businesses," said Port Metro Vancouver president Robin Silvester.

Picket lines went up at nine separate locations around Metro Vancouver Monday, including the main port of Vancouver and Deltaport as well as at several trucking companies that carry containers to and from the port.

Silvester said there are currently no negotiations. Wages are not set by the port, he said, but by individual trucking companies.

The port said last week it was already feeling the effects of work stoppages that were then underway by some non-unionized truckers. On Monday, they were joined by up to 400 unionized truck drivers.

Their union, the Unifor-Vancouver Container Truckers’ Association, voted Saturday 98 per cent in favour of rejecting a back-to-work plan drawn up by veteran mediator Vince Ready.

The union's B.C. area director Gavin McGarrigle said the strike could have been avoided.

"Quite frankly, the economic conditions for container truck drivers are simply intolerable," he said.

"This is a really dire situation. Our union has been warning the federal and provincial governments for years now that the situation was going to come to a head and that a shutdown was inevitable."

In the meantime, Ready is conducting a federal government ordered review of container trucking as a start to addressing the systemic problems behind many of the trucker's concerns.

Hard time surviving

The union says the average rate of pay for truckers moving containers to or from Port Metro Vancouver is $15.59 an hour, whereas the average rate of pay in the B.C. trucking industry is $23 an hour.

"The immediate economics of the situation for our members is just intolerable," McGarrigle said after the vote. "That's why they gave us the result they did."

Union president Paul Johal said his members are demanding increased pay rates that should be standardized and enforced across the trucking sector to put an end to undercutting.

"We're having a hard time surviving," said Johal. "The cost of living has gone through the roof and there's been no rate increase for the last eight years. We're at a time where we can no longer pull our trucks."

Port officials said security has been increased at all four container terminals.

"Facing the prospect of continued disruption of port operations by disgruntled container truckers, Port Metro Vancouver is taking immediate steps to enhance the safety of the port for working truckers," said a statement released by the port on Sunday.

Cost of goods could rise

According to Port Metro Vancouver, as many as 2,000 trucks move about $885 million worth of cargo every week in and out of the four container ship terminals.

Vincent Uy, who owns a food distribution centre, said consumers might not notice anything immediately, but if the picket lines stay up, costs of some items may rise.             

"I don't like to say devastating, but it will hurt us," he said. "[If] we cannot fill the orders, there are no sales. If there are no sales, there's no money to be made. It affects the bottom line."           

Non-union truckers sued

Port Metro Vancouver is suing the United Truckers Association, which represents at least 1,000 non-union truckers, over damage caused by what it calls disruptive protesting and property destruction.

In a statement of claim filed late last month, the port alleged the group damaged container trucks, threatened drivers trying to access port lands and threw rocks and debris at vehicles. The allegations have not been proven in court.

But Manny Dosange, spokesman for the United Truckers Association, said the lawsuit was a driving factor in the group's decision Saturday to remain on strike.

Dosange said there's no proof his members were behind the alleged offences, and any civil action should wait until a potential criminal investigation is complete.

The last time container truck drivers were on strike was 2005, when they were off the job for 47 days. Port officials said it cost the economy hundreds of millions of dollars