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Negotiations stall as retailers warn of continent-wide impact from strike at B.C. ports

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business warns the strike could cause supply chain issues like those seen earlier in the pandemic, and could also fuel inflation.

Industry insiders say strike could cause supply chain issues, higher costs for consumers

A group of people are walking down a road with signs hung around their neck saying "On Strike"

As the port workers' strike in British Columbia goes into its third day, retail associations and mayors alike are issuing warnings about the likely impact across the country — and even the continent.

Greg Wilson, the Retail Council of Canada's director of government relations for B.C., says the strike affects supply chains across the continent — a concern for retailers and consumers alike.

"There will be impacts North American-wide," Wilson said in an interview with CBC News.

B.C. port workers with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) walked off the job Saturday morning. Their employer, the B.C. Maritime Employers Association (BCMEA), said bargaining attempts with a federal mediator had been unsuccessful over the course of three days.

On Monday afternoon the association representing the employers released another statement that said negotiations had stalled. The BCMEA said it has gone as far as possible on core issues and its negotiators don't think that more bargaining will produce a collective agreement.

"ILWU Canada went on strike over demands that were and continue to be outside any reasonable framework for settlement. Given the foregoing mentioned, the BCMEA is of the view that a continuation of bargaining at this time is not going to produce a collective agreement,'' the statement reads.

In response, ILWU released a statement accusing employers of deliberately sabotaging negotiations by abandoning progress the two groups had made around the issue of maintenance workers.

Both sides were at the negotiation table as recently as Monday morning

"When we finally had a document that was largely agreed upon as the result of continuous movement by the union on this one position the association decided to change their position in an attempt to muddy the water and mischaracterize the work we have spent months discussing," reads the statement from ILWU president Rob Ashton.

A man stands with an "On Strike" sign hanging from his neck on a sidewalk, with a group of picketers in the background.

Ashton's statement also rebutted the BCMEA's suggestion that continuing to bargain wouldn't produce a collective agreement, and added that imposing a collective agreement wouldn't create the long-term labour stability needed in the industry.

"We hope that the association is not hiding behind the threat of back-to-work legislation and binding arbitration to avoid engaging in bargaining with the union."

The strike affects about 7,400 terminal cargo loaders and 49 of the province's waterfront employers at more than 30 B.C. ports including Canada's busiest, Vancouver.

In a written statement, the Port of Vancouver said one third of Canada's international trade moves through the busy port.

"We hope for a swift and satisfactory resolution for all parties involved," the port authority said.

Scrambling for alternatives

Wilson said businesses are scrambling to find other ways to get their goods to their final destination.

Alternative routes could include shipping goods to ports in the U.S. and then shipping them by train or truck, Wilson said, but alternate shipping arrangements often cost more. And that's on top of additional fees to have goods sit in containers, he added, waiting to be shipped.

A large sign strung up between two trees reads "Stamp out. Union-busting in all ports."

Wilson said the federal government should call MPs back to the House of Commons back as soon as possible, if not to implement back-to-work legislation then at least to put pressure on the negotiating parties.

"It's important that all senior levels of this government work very hard and provide any incentives necessary to achieve a settlement," he said.

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith said the ongoing strike could cause "substantial economic harm"' in Alberta and across Canada.

Smith issued a statement saying her government is monitoring the situation and is concerned about the negative impact the strike will have on the Canadian economy, including increased inflationary pressures on consumers.

'Extremely important to the entire country'

Jasmin Guénette, vice-president of national affairs at the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, says if cargo doesn't arrive at its destination on time, businesses could lose inventory, sales, revenues or even contract opportunities.

The strike affects all the businesses that support the shipping industry across B.C. and Canada, Guénette says, from manufacturing to trucking and everything in between.

A sign reading "I.L.W.U workers on strike" is affixed to the back of a black SUV, and a group of three men holding similar signs and looking down at their phones stand next to the vehicle.

'"The Port of Vancouver and B.C. ports are extremely important to the entire country," he said.

"The economy needs ports and railways to be operating 100 per cent of the time."

Like Wilson, Guénette warned the strike could cause additional supply chain issues like those seen earlier in the pandemic, and could also fuel inflation.

'Nobody in the town that isn't affected'

Other ports in B.C. are also feeling the impact of the strike.

Prince Rupert Mayor Herb Pond told CBC News Network host Sarah Galashan that the strike is affecting every aspect of the 12,000-person city on B.C.'s North Coast.

"There's nobody in the town that isn't affected in one way or another," Pond said.

Prince Rupert is Canada's third-largest port, and workers there are also on strike. Pond said about 4,000 people in the town work in some sort of port-related capacity.

"You cannot enter a school classroom or a sports team or the golf course without having people in those groups that are all affected by this strike," he said. "So we're certainly hoping that it's settled quickly and fairly."

Pond said he didn't advocate for the federal government to step in with back-to-work legislation, but he knows Ottawa is keeping a close eye on the strike.

'"The average person in the Vancouver area probably doesn't even know a longshore worker and wouldn't know that personal impact on those families, but they will know it when they go to get their Toyota serviced and Toyota can't get the parts"

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