By R. Bruce Striegler

For years container truckers have been calling for better compensation and an end to long unpaid waits at Port Metro Vancouver terminals. Truckers also say rates should be standardized and enforced by audits to put an end to undercutting, a practice some trucking companies are employing to avoid wait-time fees. A trucker’s work stoppage in February brought the issues into sharp focus. It began with the United Truckers Association (UTA) representing about 1,000 members, including employee drivers and non-union owner-operators and a week later, Unifor, representing the majority of unionized truckers, joined the strike.

The work stoppage forced the federal and provincial governments, Port Metro Vancouver and the various trucking organizations to develop a joint action plan to resolve the dispute. Both levels of government were to have implemented regulatory or legislative measures in support of resolving the difficulties by April 3, seven days after the return to work. In August, amid court challenges to the federal government’s jurisdiction and calls by terminal operators for a judicial review, the trucking industry has again sounded an alarm of further work stoppages.

“Right now we’re waiting for the federal and provincial government to live up to the deal they negotiated with trucker’s reps in March,” says Gavin McGarrigle, Unifor’s B.C. area director. Key points of the agreement included Port Metro Vancouver rescinding any licence suspensions resulting from the strike and implementing a 12 per cent increase in round-trip rates and bringing in a $25.13 minimum rate for hourly drivers. Port Metro Vancouver also committed to consulting with the trucking industry on an overhaul of the current port licensing system in order “to create a more stable trucking industry.”

Government action required to complete terms of agreement

McGarrigle adds that only some of the steps in the Joint Action Plan were implemented following its acceptance. “We had a comprehensive Joint Action Plan that was touted as the way to end the dispute. We’ve lived up to our end of the bargain by going back to work. Government hasn’t at this point, lived up to their obligations in terms of making sure the rates set out in the Joint action plan are made legal and binding across the sector for union and non-union hourly and owner operators.”

Trucking service interruptions flared in 1999 and again 2005 generated by many of the same issues. Peter Xotta, Vice-President Planning and Operations at Port Metro Vancouver says the earlier disputes included congestion at port terminals and over-supply of trucks and consequent undercutting. Those disputes resulted in new federal government regulations of the Canada Marine Act and according to Xotta, created an improved framework to manage drayage in the Vancouver gateway.

Unifor’s McGarrigle acknowledges improvements on waiting time fees and equipping the fleet with GPS systems. “Those are all positive steps. But the real meat and potatoes of the deal is a minimum binding rate for owner-operators and hourly employees, across the board, so there can be no more undercutting.” Managing the plan are Transport Canada with responsibility shared with the provincial government, Port Metro Vancouver and trucking stakeholders including container terminal operating companies, shippers, trucking companies and truck drivers. Not surprisingly, implementing the complex plan has been problematic due to the many competing interests.

Louise Yako, President and CEO of the B.C. Trucking Association representing the companies, says of the changes, “Some have been good, all have been in response to the joint action plan.” She says, however, there are challenges, as significant adjustments have been required throughout the system. “The changes the trucking companies have had to deal with concerns the $50 reservation fee, which is assessed on all reservations for the day gate.”

Push back against new fees by trucking companies and their customers

Ms. Yako points out that there are four different marine container reservation systems for trucks, each independently operated by four terminals. “There is no integration, there is no overall system, and while the Port is sponsoring a project to change that, with the full support of the marine container terminals, it is still a work in progress,” Yako continues, explaining that some of the newest changes include doubled gate time at terminals.

“In the past, the day gates closed between 5 or 6PM, but now terminals offer a gate that is open until 1AM. “Before doubling the availability of gate hours, they had offered night gates on a sporadic basis, and often cancelled if there was little demand. On the surface, an increase in capacity is a good thing, but at the same time, as the total number of reservations have increased, the number of reservations available on a per hour basis have decreased, so as to push some of that traffic to the night.” She explains that the $50 container reservation fee has caused some freight customers who are very price sensitive, to tell their trucking companies they must pick up at night to avoid the fee.

“This causes congestion during some prime hours during early night gates. The other thing that has happened is that, because there are now wait-time fees that terminals have to pay, they have reduced the number of reservations per hour so they can ensure throughput of the trucks occurs before they can be penalized.”

McGarrigle says he is uncertain as to the reasons for the slow government action. “We obviously don’t want to see another disruption but a deal is a deal. Our part of it was return to work. We did that.” He adds that B.C. government has engaged one of the province’s top negotiators who is meeting with the stakeholders. McGarrigle says at recent meetings with federal Transport Minister Raitt and Provincial Transportation Minister Todd Stone, he has been assured they were looking at making the necessary regulatory and legislative changes.

McGarrigle says that what is really happening is that trucking companies and their customers are pushing back strongly against the new rates. “About 33 trucking companies have filed a lawsuit saying the federal government is without jurisdiction to impose even the limited steps they did.” Continuing, he points out that terminal operators have filed for a judicial review of the Port’s decision to levy efficiency fees, also called waiting fees. “In the meantime, there are these unscrupulous companies, these trucking companies who’ve practiced their wild-west ways for so long, and are the root cause of every dispute that has occurred.” He notes that some companies are paying the new rates, but there are some who say they’ll do it for less and that these fees need not be paid.

Vancouver’s highly competitive trucking market continues to simmer

Port Metro Vancouver’s Peter Xotta explains that the Vancouver-area container trucking sector is highly fragmented, consisting of about 150 privately-owned trucking companies, 800 owner/operators with about 1,900 trucks in total. He says that about 80 per cent of truckers are covered by collective agreements. “There are several different trucking unions including Unifor-Vancouver Container Truckers’ Association with anywhere from 250 to 400 members.” He notes that other organizations include the B.C. Trucking Association which speaks for the interests of truckers and trucking companies.

Xotta continued, saying, “When we first introduced truck licencing schemes in 1999, our records indicate there were some 4,500 trucks participating. In 2005 we had 2,500 trucks registered and today we have just under 2,000. So, against the ebb and flow of the marketplace and the frustration of drivers around compensation levels, we’re heading in the right direction to create better conditions around asset utilization and hopefully better compensation.” Xotta suggests that on a macro level, these numbers are an indicator that even with the port’s fluid operating conditions, it is a driving situation that drivers are attracted to. “We hear about North American-wide shortage of truck drivers, we hear about that here in B.C. given the high-level of construction, yet we have drivers who choose to stay in this particular type of trucking employment because it affords them, generally speaking, a good living.”

Xotta also says that in June, a new whistleblower service was launched. This collaborative effort by Port Metro Vancouver and the provincial Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure provides a way for Lower Mainland container truckers to voice concerns about such things as trucking company compliance with joint action plan remuneration rates, truck licensing or driver harassment. Xotta says targeted, expedited audits will take place in the coming weeks to ensure employers are paying truckers according to the action plan.

When asked for comment about final resolution of outstanding issues, the B.C. Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure referred Canadian Sailings to the joint federal-provincial news release issued on June 13, following the acceptance of the joint action plan. According to the release, “A great deal has been accomplished over the past two months, such as increases to the rates to be paid to truckers. However, we remain very concerned about the consistent application of these rates and will not hesitate to take action to ensure compliance with the Joint Action Plan. As an immediate measure, the provincial audit program is being strengthened and targeted investigations are underway.

“While we are actively working on rate compliance, the Action Plan also includes measures to reduce wait times at the port. In response, the port marine terminals are extending their hours and the container truck GPS installation project aimed at reducing congestion and wait times at the port is nearing completion.

While these are all positive steps, it is imperative that, taken together, they work for everyone impacted. We have asked our officials to continue to work with the port terminals and drayage community to make sure these steps improve port productivity, and do not result in a download of costs to the truckers that make this sector such a success. Pivotal to this progress has been advisor [mediator] Vince Ready. His recent recommendations on implementing key elements of the Joint Action Plan were accepted without hesitation by our governments, Port Metro Vancouver and other partners.”