With memories of the disruption caused by last October’s 16-day lockout of longshoremen still vivid, West Coast ports are facing the threat of another shutdown, which could back up grain-filled rail cars from Vancouver to the Prairies. Indeed, the dispute between 750 grain handlers and six terminal operators would halt the flow of more than 30,000 tonnes a day of wheat and other grains—roughly half of Canadian grain exports—if either side forces a stoppage.
Last year’s dispute was settled only after Ottawa threatened to impose the federal Six-and-Five restraint program. In this latest chapter of the fractious labor relations history of West Coast ports, the grain handlers, who earn a base wage of $14.15 an hour, want an additional $1.30 to regain their traditional parity with the longshoremen with whom they work side by side. An association of terminal operators has offered 75 cents an hour. After five months of talks the sides are now in a position to walk out or impose a lockout, although the immediate threat eased late last week when the federal government appointed a mediator.
Grain handlers and longshoremen had identical hourly rates when Parliament ended a 2 V2-month lockout of the grain handlers in October, 1974. Wage parity was legislated, but the longshoremen pulled ahead last year.
The grain handlers’ latest tactic is to refuse to work overtime in an attempt to put pressure on the terminal operators. It was suggested in the House of Commons that former Supreme Court of Canada justice Emmett Hall be appointed as a conciliator in the dispute. Employment and Immigration Minister Lloyd Axworthy, acting for the minister of labor, said that such a move could be effective only when there is a willingness to compromise. “I am advised that you show no flexibility whatsoever in your demand of $1.30 per hour as the price of settlement of this dispute,” he said in a telegram to the grain workers’ union last week. But by Friday Ottawa appeared to have decided that the standoff had lasted long enough and it appointed renowned labor mediator William Kelly to try to settle the dispute.
Kelly’s appointment was a promising development. But the sorry and expensive history of labor disputes on the coast does not provide much reason to hope that the two sides will come to terms before Canada’s record as a reliable grain exporter is damaged yet again. -MALCOLM GRAY in Vancouver.
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