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Canadian Dock Workers Set to Return to Picket Lines and Facing State Repression

Port workers in British Columbia, Canada, have been on strike for over two weeks. This strike parallels many struggles of the working class in the U.S., and it offers useful lessons for fighting back against worsening conditions.

Matthew Walters

July 20, 2023
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On July 19, Canada’s federal government deemed the proposed strike action of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) “illegal.”. The ILWU had been on strike from July 1 to 13, but initially called off the action to consider a tentative agreement from a federal mediator. The membership rejected this deal, and on July 18, they returned to the picket lines for one day. Because they had not given a 72-hour notice, Labour Minister Seamus O’Reagan declared the strike action illegal. It is unclear if or when the ILWU will return to the picket lines — any deals would once again need to be considered by the membership — but the union’s rank and file have shown that they are not willing to back down. 

These workers had been working without a contract since March, and the bosses refused to accept the union’s conditions before the cooling-off period expired. The strike proposal had near unanimous support from the grassroots of the union, with nearly 100 percent of union members (99.24 percent) participating in the vote to strike. Despite the endless stream of pressure and propaganda from the bosses, the Canadian state, and the bourgeois press, the strike has achieved a high level of public support and received solidarity from unions across Canada and the U.S.

This has been one of the largest and most impactful strikes in recent Canadian history. Working conditions are deteriorating while the cost of living is rising. This has set one of the most strategically significant sectors of Canada’s working class in motion — one that can truly shut down the whole economy.. The response of the government and bosses shows the fear it has struck in their hearts. Socialists and trade unionists must do everything to support the strike, fight for the victory of the ILWU, and study the lessons to be learned for the struggles ahead.

Bringing Canada to Its Knees

It is somewhat symbolic that on Canada Day on July 1, the BC port workers demonstrated their power to shut Canada down. The estimated daily cost of the BC port strike was over $500 million (CAD); by the end of the strike, it cost the Canadian economy anywhere from $5.5 billion to an eye-watering $9 billion, according to estimates.

One of the most significant areas of the strike is the Prince Rupert port, located on BC’s northern coast. Although Prince Rupert is a small shipping town, it plays a disproportionately large role in the Canadian economy. As of 2020, 32.4 million tons of cargo pass through the port annually. Export and imports generate over $60 billion per year.

The most significant port in BC is Vancouver, which is larger than the next five greatest ports in Canada combined. The Port of Vancouver generates over $305 billion through import and export of goods, and it contributes nearly $12 billion to Canada’s GDP. One out of every three dollars in Canada touches the Port of Vancouver, and 40 percent of all Canadian shipping passes through there: it is an essential lifeline of the Canadian economy. The BC Maritime Employers Association (BCMEA) has described the strike as “holding the economy hostage,” which is not the language of a winning side. This shows the scope of power the organized port workers have over not just their bosses, but the capitalists in nearly all vital industries.

Striking against Inflation, Automation, and Contracting Out

The global economic crisis sparked by the Covid-19 pandemic has seriously deteriorated the living and working standards of workers across all industries. Inflation, stagnation, supply chain collapse, and increased exploitation have become a pandemic in and of themselves these past three years. In an industry so intimately connected to global trade and supply chains, the effects of this downturn are especially acute, and the burden is felt heavily by port workers across the world.

The past few months has seen inflation erode the real wages of the Canadian working class. At the same time, capitalists are recording record profits as a result of the increased price of commodities. For example, six global shipping lines, all of which are members of the BCMEA, increased their profits over 1500 percent from 2019 to 2022. In the same period, BC longshore workers’ wages grew less than 10 percent. In addition to inflation, the astonishing cost of living in BC, which has only worsened through the pandemic, has eaten into Longshore workers’ purchasing power by 2.5 percent.

Not only wages but also job security and employment are under attack through rising automation and contracting out. The “race to the bottom” to reduce costs of shipping and labor has been globally unleashed in the wake of the pandemic. Port workers are rightfully worried about what this means for their future in the industry. One of the key demands of the strike was against the contracting out of maintenance work to third-party, primarily nonunion, contractors. This threatens to lower wages and increase competition between workers as skilled union jobs are contracted out. Further, contracting the jobs out grossly undermines the unions’ authority and jurisdiction over maintenance work and other issues, decreasing their bargaining power and increasing the authority of the BCMEA.

The most imminent and long-term threat to working conditions and job stability, however, is automation. Canada’s shipping industry is one of the least productive among the developed capitalist countries, and as China rapidly automates its ports, the pressure is on. BC already has two semiautomated ports: one in Delta (part of the greater Vancouver area), and one in Prince Rupert. A proposed third terminal in Delta will also be semiautomated, which caused the ILWU to ring the alarm about a potential domino effect, forcing more and more ports to adopt semi, and eventually full, automation.

While the port owners claim that automation will increase jobs, several ILWU studies have shown the opposite. An example given by the Canadian bosses was the automation of ports in Long Beach and Los Angeles, California. They claimed that automation increased jobs and wages, while an independent, union-backed study found that over 570 jobs were lost annually between the two ports, with newer jobs being lower skill and lower pay. Another ILWU study from 2019 found that 50 percent of jobs would be under threat by semiautomation, and potentially up to 90 percent by full automation.

Fight For the Right to Strike

The criminalization of the strike is part of a broader trend by the Liberal Trudeau government to use the power of the state to crush strikes and unions. With the increase of class struggle in essential sectors such as transport, education, and ports, the government has increasingly resorted to back-to-work legislation and repression. But this does not necessarily spell the end of the ILWU strike — the criminalization of the strike is based on a legal technicality. The ILWU could still prepare a strike the “proper” way. Furthermore, any deals proposed by the government or a mediator must still be considered, and then accepted or rejected, by the membership. The Canadian capitalists may have found a way to crush the strike for now, but it is not the end of their troubles just yet. 

The original decision to vote down the deal proposed by the government should be applauded by socialists and labor activists. Far too often, trade union leaders accept the first watered-down deal they are given by the government, seeing it as a “compromise” necessary for victory. But this strategy has led to defeat after defeat, demoralizing the organized working class and allowing the bosses to erode the living and working conditions of workers over the last few decades. The government, the bosses, and the media have intensified their campaign against the striking workers. The bosses have openly been lobbying Ottawa to reconvene Parliament and pass through back-to-work legislation. The media has spread the bosses propaganda, writing that the strike is responsible for inflation, layoffs, and rising cost of living. The Liberals have convened an “emergency committee” to discuss action to stop the strike, which could threaten their weak coalition with the federal New Democratic Party (Canada’s Labor Party) as they have signaled opposition to any back-to-work legislation. The Conservatives are also exerting pressure to end the strike, deal or no deal.

While the strike has faced growing opposition from the capitalists, it has also experienced an outpouring of solidarity and united action from fellow dockworkers along the U.S. coast. The American ILWU has refused to unload Canada-bound cargo in solidarity with the workers, extending the picket line across borders. This shows the importance of international solidarity between workers in the same industry. Faced with the criminalization of the strike, this solidarity must be expanded to other industries connected to shipping and transport. Expanding the struggle makes it less and less viable for the capitalists to criminalize a union or a strike. 

The capitalists of all industries are attempting to make the working class pay for the crisis. The port workers’ strike is demonstrating how we can fight back. The organized working class has power precisely because it can shut down the economy, depriving the capitalists of their profits. The labor movement needs a militant leadership and program that uses this power and relies on our collective strength, instead of fearing the inevitable backlash from the capitalists, their state, and their press. For this to happen, the grassroots inside the labor movement must collectively control their organizations to counter the pressure from the bosses and the state.

Rob Ashton, president of the Canadian ILWU, said near the start of the strike that “we’re here ’til the end.” Now is the time to put this to the test. The grassroots of the union must ensure that this promise is fulfilled — that the union fights “until the end” for the contract they need and deserve.

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