“I ask anyone who is watching this, to not be ashamed to be a member of the working class. It’s the only class we belong to, and this is a class war. And don’t let anybody tell you differently.” These were the booming words of International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Canada president Rob Ashton at a solidarity rally Sunday, July 8 in support of their 7,400-strong ongoing strike. Representatives from unions as far as New Zealand and Australia, as well as dozens of other Canadian unions were present in support of the strike which began July 1.
It is unlikely the bosses’ organization of British Columbia Maritime Employers Association (BCMEA)—which bargains on behalf of 49 of B.C.’s private waterfront companies—thought the strike would happen, let alone go on this long. After all, the ILWU Canada had not struck in over 30 years, and in the United States, 22,000 ILWU members who had been working without a contract since July 2022 reached an unspecified deal with employers despite being in a legal strike position. Yet the workers have held strong for two whole weeks.
Now, the Liberal government is preparing to intervene to end the strike. The union must reject binding arbitration and any other attempt to force them back to work.
We say: Don’t back down, strike to win!
The power of the working class
The strike has been a great example of the immense power of workers. Not a light shines, not a wheel turn, not a boat leaves the coast without the kind permission of the working class.
It is already estimated the strike has cost the Canadian economy an estimated $5.5 billion. The port workers are a key sector who by their hard work allow the bosses to make handsome profits. The strike has thrown a wrench in this process, unleashing the fury of the capitalist class.
The workers of B.C. can also count on the solidarity from their brothers and sisters south of the border. Indeed, a hot edict placed on Canadian goods by ILWU ports in the American West Coast, meaning no Canadian-source exports are being loaded. This is the kind of active solidarity which should become commonplace in all strikes.
The rally in support of the workers on Sunday was another show of force and militancy by the workers. President Rob Ashton addressed the crowd with these resounding words:
[The BCMEA] is lying when they say you don’t deserve the money you make
Workers not only on longshore, but workers around this country, workers in unions, workers non-union, should never apologize for the money that they earn, because the profit that these corporate whores take from us, is our money…
This is why unions from around the province, from around the country, are standing here to say: We will not take it anymore, and we want what is ours.
Our forebears from the labour movement the worldwide over, they died for what we have today. They spilled their blood for what we have today…
This is what the working class is all about. It doesn’t matter what your race, colour, or sexuality is. Whether you’re an environmentalist or you work on a pipeline, don’t let them split us. We remember today, we remember yesterday, because tomorrow the labour movement awakens, and we fight like hell to take back what is ours.
These are wise words! Such bold, class-war language should become the norm in all the unions. We are no longer living in a period of quiet class relations. The workers are crushed by inflation, stagnant wages, long hours, and now a recession is just around the corner. The bosses are on the offensive, and we need to respond in kind. This is what the B.C. port workers have been doing.
Who is really holding the economy hostage?
As with every major strike, like a broken record, the bosses are whining and complaining that the workers are holding the Canadian economy “hostage”. They imply that the workers are hitting other workers (the “consumers”) because of the gluts in production, and the Canadian Chamber of Commerce even raised the specter of job losses if the strike continues.
But who is really to blame here?
If the bosses in Canada really cared about the “economy”, the “consumers” and about jobs, they would pressure their friends in the BCMEA to give good wages to ILWU workers, to stop contracting out and to not use automation to eliminate well-paid jobs. It is the bosses’ greed that forced the workers to resort to their ultimate weapon, the strike.
And it’s not like the maritime bosses don’t have the money. In a July 10 letter released by ILWU titled “Economic Facts Support ILWU Claims of Employer’s Soaring Profits,” the union states that the six biggest global shipping companies control 70 per cent of world shipping. All six are members of BCMEA. From 2020 to 2022 the shipping industry generated as much profit as it had during the previous six decades combined.
Moreover, container freight from North America to Asia surged from $2,000 USD per twenty-foot-equivalent unit (TEU) to over $10,000 in 2022. The port of Vancouver alone exported 3.6 million TEUs in 2022. Together, the top five companies have made more than $100 billion in profit in 2022—up 1,500 per cent since 2019. This is while inflation has eroded longshore workers’ wages.
These greedy capitalists are the ones to blame for any hardships this strike has caused in the rest of the economy. No worker stands to win anything if the ILWU is crushed. It is the bosses that are keeping us hostage—the hostages of bad job conditions and eroding wages. A victory for the ILWU can give the impulse to the rest of the working class to turn the situation around.
Bosses and capitalist politicians foaming at the mouth
Multiple bosses’ organizations in the U.S. and Canada, as well as many provincial governments, are foaming at the mouth demanding the government to put an end to the strike.
Survey results released Tuesday by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business found 75 per cent of businesses are calling for back-to-work legislation. It is worth noting that even the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that these laws are unconstitutional.
The media has been running smear stories against the strike almost endlessly around the clock. The front page of The Globe and Mail on July 10 ran a sob story for BCMEA, including calls from the Canadian Manufacturers Association to legislate workers back to work. On Sunday, senior vice president with the Canadian Chamber of Commerce said “We can’t let this drag on,” adding “We need the government to intervene, and we need them to intervene quickly … and force back-to-work legislation if that’s required.” The Greater Vancouver Board of Trade is also asking Ottawa to “use every tool at its disposal” to ensure a deal is made to resume activity at the city’s port, including back-to-work legislation.
Doug Ford, who tried to use the Canadian Charter’s notwithstanding clause to break the strike of 55,000 Ontario education workers, said “We need to get moving. I’m all for supporting the frontline workers, but you can’t hold the whole country hostage,” at a news conference earlier.
Scott Moe, premier of Saskatchewan, told CBC, “We encourage all of those involved to work feverishly and work ambitiously towards an agreement … But we also encourage the federal government to consider ultimately, and maybe unfortunately, utilizing all of the tools that they have,” meaning the Liberals should legislate ILWU back to work.
Danielle Smith and Alberta transport minister Devin Dreeshen have also both vocally called for back-to-work legislation.
The BCNDP, true to fashion, tried to appease everyone and in the end pleased no one. While not outright calling for back-to-work legislation, Premier David Eby has not outright supported the ILWU either, and said, “We are encouraging both parties, both the employer and the workers, to be at the table working that out and the federal government to be involved in advancing that discussion as well.” He added, “We all want this to be resolved as quickly as possible. We want this to be resolved today of course. So the sooner it is resolved, the better.” Truly inspiring words from the leader of a party founded by the trade unions.
The ports are under federal jurisdiction, and these appeals are therefore aimed at getting Trudeau’s Liberals to act. We know all too well that the Liberals, in normal times, would not shy away from taking away the ILWU’s right to strike. Only two years ago, they did just that to the 1,125 Montreal dockworkers.
But this time around, they are held in power as a minority government through the support of the NDP, which have publicly stated they will not support any back-to-work legislation if tabled. Such a course of action could make the government fall.
In addition to this, the Liberals may be afraid that the struggle will escalate in the face of repression. We now have the example of 55,000 CUPE workers who defied Doug Ford’s attempts to take away their right to strike last year in Ontario, almost sparking a general strike. A similar thing could happen if the ILWU leadership calls for defiance.
Therefore, the Liberals have stayed aloof for most of the conflict and studiously avoided the use of the term “back-to-work legislation”. But make no mistake, they are looking for a way to end the strike and crush the workers.
No to binding arbitration or back-to-work legislation!
In the face of mounting pressure from the bosses, the Liberals have decided to intervene.
On July 11, Federal Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan released a statement saying “after eleven days of a work stoppage, I have decided that the difference between the employer’s and the union’s positions is not sufficient to justify a continued work stoppage.” He then enacted section 105(2) of the Canada Labour Code. This gives the minister of Labour the power to appoint a mediator who can make recommendations to end a dispute and give the ILWU an agreement which it has 24 hours to recommend for ratification.
This is nothing but an attempt at binding arbitration, which is back-to-work legislation under another name. It is a direct attempt by the federal government to crush the strike. If the ILWU accepts the terms of the agreements, or agrees to go back to work while the deal is ratified, the strike could be over as soon as 10:30 a.m. PT July 13.
Even if the ILWU bargaining committee rejects the proposal, the federal government can force a vote onto the membership under section 108. But with the bargaining committee rejecting it, it would most likely be rejected by the workers, and rightly so. If the deal is rejected, it’s quite possible the government could legislate away their right to strike, which would require Parliament to be reconvened.
The ILWU has been vocal since the strike started against any attempt at government interference. At Sunday’s rally, Ashton said, “We don’t want the federal government to get involved in our business. We must tell [BCMEA] to come to the table. Negotiate, not legislate.”
This means that the ILWU bargaining committee must reject the proposed agreement of the mediator, and appeal to its members to reject it as well. The strike is working, the bosses are foaming and panicking. Accepting the recommended agreement would ruin the momentum that has been built up, and could not easily be recovered if the workers end up rejecting the agreement.
Don’t back down! Strike to win!
The ILWU strike has been an inspiration for workers all across the country. We cannot fall into the latest trap set up by the Liberals.
If the union correctly rejects arbitration, the Liberals would be under tremendous pressure from the bosses to resort to an anti-democratic back-to-work legislation. The fact that the Liberals are in a minority government only allowed to govern through the support of the NDP actually places the union in a strong position. If the government attempts to legislate and end to the strike, the NDP must call a vote of no confidence and bring down the government.
Back-to-work legislation is a poison in the labour movement, and its use is the norm in B.C. port strikes. Parliament has forced an end to strikes and lockouts by B.C. longshore workers and grain handlers nine times between 1972 and 1995. The 21-day 1972 strike was broken by then-Liberal prime minister Pierre Trudeau. Since 1950, Canadian federal and provincial governments have legislated 146 labour disputes (and counting) back to work.
If the capitalists know that the government will simply legislate and end the strike, they have no need to negotiate in good faith. Indeed, the main tactic of the BCMEA has been to walk away from bargaining and wait for legislation to put an end to the strike.
Therefore, we must defy any attempts to infringe on the right to strike in order to set a dramatically different precedent from what is all too common in the Canadian labour movement. This would show bosses they can no longer rely on the federal government to do its dirty work.
A movement of defiance would not be out of character for port workers, who have a proud militant tradition. In 1966, ILWU workers in B.C. defied an anti-union injunction by the Supreme Court of Canada and went on strike when employers would not grant statutory days off. Ten union leaders were arrested and jailed for months, but the union won its demands. Montreal longshore workers also have a rich tradition of this. Between 1960 and 1975, there were 13 strikes at the port, including illegal strikes. A 37-day strike in 1966 led to wage increases, greater job security, and better work sharing. These traditions need to be revived!
In response to talks of back-to-work legislation, the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) published a letter signed by every labour federation in the country saying, “Back-to-work legislation would be a serious misstep and would be met with strong resistance from the entire labour movement.” The letter added, “Legislating workers back to work tramples on every Canadian’s Charter right to freedom of association and the right to bargain the terms and conditions of employment … As Presidents of the provincial, territorial, and national labour bodies, we firmly oppose any attempt by the government to legislate ILWU members back to work.“
This is correct, but words must be backed by deeds in the event of legislation. If back-to-work legislation is enacted, the CLC should actively organize solidarity strikes throughout the country, shutting down not only East Coast ports, but working to spread the strike through all major industries since it would be an attack on all workers’ fundamental rights.
The strike finds itself at a critical juncture. It can show the path forward for fighting crushing inflation and mounting attacks from the bosses without bending to the will of bourgeois governments, and could be a critical win that workers everywhere can look to for inspiration. They need the support and active solidarity of the entire labour movement in Canada.