Solidarity picketers make tugboat strike picket line six times stronger

Walking the line at the Vancouver docks

BETTY LUPTON was walking a picket line in Vancouver last week. But she isn’t on strike. Lupton is one of about 1000 shipyard workers walking picket lines in solidarity with 165 workers who are on strike.

The workers on strike are captains and engineers who work for Seaspan, a large tugboat company. They are all members of the Canadian Merchant Service Guild. They went out on strike in late August when the employer refused to meet union requests for changes to wages, shift scheduling and safety.

Since then the combination of strikers and solidarity picketers has shut down one of the country’s largest ship-building operations.

Solidarity picketing approved

Seaspan went to the BC Labour Relations Board to argue that the solidarity support constituted an illegal strike. But the board’s vice-chair, Stephanie Drake, dismissed that application.

“Respecting 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 strike,” she wrote on Sept. 15.

The company then took the case to the B.C. Supreme Court, asking for an injunction that would prevent the tugboat workers from setting up picket lines. Justice George MacIntosh dismissed that application.

Quiet life on the line

The news was well-received on the picket line, where members of different unions tossed around a frisbee and sipped on their Tim Hortons. Electricians, pipefitters and welders read books, chatted over coffee and downed hot dogs and burgers prepared at two separate grills.

Some wore T-shirts bearing the slogan: “2% is for milk, not wage increases.”

Lupton, a chair with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 213, is hoping bargaining resumes so the picket can end. She blames the company for the delay and worries the wait is forcing some of her unionized colleagues to look for work elsewhere.

“We’re always hopeful the company would reach out and start negotiating again with CMSG,” Lupton said. “Ultimately, we’re honouring a picket line and we will continue to do so. But there are some realities that everybody faces after a certain period of time. I think a lot of people are looking at their tools and maybe finding other work.”

Seaspan’s 30 boats haul cruise ships to harbour. They also transport massive shipments of chemicals and oil. The company also has a significant shipbuilding operation. Seaspan is one of the largest and busiest operations in the harbour. The strike has shut it all down.

Oceans apart

In a pamphlet distributed to members, the Guild said Seaspan’s proposal would “offer wages far below industry standard and the current inflation levels” and would create changes to the work system that would “reduce staff, increase risk and increase operator fatigue.”

Union members say Seaspan has proposed replacing engineers on tugboats with staff who have obtained a separate federal certificate. That’s legal, but union members have concerns it could affect engineers’ jobs and increase risk of an environmental mishap, given those tugboats sometimes haul chemicals and oil along the province’s coast.

Seaspan’s tugboat operations are federally regulated. In September, government mediators joined the parties to try and find a path back to the bargaining table.

Seaspan’s lawyers have gone back to the BC Labour Relations Board, asking them to reconsider their earlier decision that upheld the legality of the picket.

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