Spartacist Canada No. 181
For a Class-Struggle Fight to Organize All Port Workers!
Port Truckers Strike Beats Back Bosses' Attacks
The following article was written by the Trotskyist League/Ligue trotskyste for Workers Vanguard No. 1043, 4 April.
After a bitter month-long strike, some 1,600 Vancouver, British Columbia, port truckers returned to work on March 27 with a settlement that includes significant gains. The strike began on February 26 when more than 1,200 mostly non-union drivers, members of the United Truckers Association (UTA), walked off the job demanding higher pay rates and shorter wait times at the port. On March 10, they were joined by about 400 unionized truckers in Unifor-Vancouver Container Truckers’ Association.
The strike, waged by a workforce that is mainly Punjabi, became one of the most prolonged waterfront labour battles seen on the North American West Coast in years. Facing down attacks by the port authority, the trucking companies and the federal and provincial governments, these heavily immigrant drivers stood firm, powerfully demonstrating that even a fairly small number of workers can have a huge impact when they act collectively.
Vancouver is the largest export port in North America. As grain and forest products began to pile up in containers outside the port, the Port Metro Vancouver (PMV) bosses went after the UTA with a vindictive lawsuit, claiming that the strike was costing up to $885 million a week and causing untold harm, including “to Canada itself.” Braying about “violence,” the PMV got an injunction prohibiting pickets on port property only days into the strike. Nevertheless, the determined strikers succeeded in choking off the movement of cargo. Truckers protested and picketed outside the terminals every day, while making would-be scabs aware that strikebreaking would be dangerous to their health. Vindictively, police and security forces were mobilized to continually film the strikers. The PMV also threatened to terminate the permits of striking UTA truckers, which would bar them from future work at the port. On March 19, the British Columbia Liberal government, egged on by the Conservative rulers in Ottawa, announced that it would enact legislation to break the strike by Unifor workers.
Strikers responded to these moves with defiance. As Unifor’s B.C. Area Director Gavin McGarrigle said, “What I’m hearing from some of the members on the picket line is they’re considering going to jail” (Canadian Press, 20 March). Earlier, Unifor and UTA members had both overwhelmingly rejected a settlement proposed by a government mediator. Now, rather than leave the UTA alone on the picket lines, an angry and militant Unifor membership pushed the union leaders to take an uncharacteristically defiant stand. After flying into B.C., Unifor national president Jerry Dias announced that the union would refuse to obey back-to-work legislation and demanded an immediate reopening of negotiations.
Though it represents only a minority of the port truckers, Unifor is part of the largest private-sector union in Canada, with a $135 million strike fund. When the union declared that it would defy the strikebreaking law, the government blinked, abandoning its hardline “no negotiations” posture. Half a day later, both Unifor and the UTA had a deal that saw the government make numerous concessions.
These events hold important lessons for the whole labour movement, which has seen one defeat after the other thanks to the cap-in-hand begging to the bosses that most union bureaucrats call “bargaining.” Indeed, five years ago the leaders of the Canadian Auto Workers, one of the unions that merged to found Unifor last summer, surrendered to the auto bosses’ demands for wage and benefit cuts of $19 an hour.
In contrast, the determination and unity of the UTA and Unifor truckers temporarily put some steel in the backbone of their leaders and forced the government and port authority to withdraw the strikebreaking bill, the punitive lawsuit and the revoking of permits. The settlement also includes improved wages and trip rates as well as payments for wait times. However, it states that the PMV will only rescind permit suspensions “where no criminal charges have been laid against any driver or operator by the police.” While no one has yet been charged for activities on the picket lines, this measure could open the door to reprisals. In the event of any retaliation, all labour must stand in defense of the strikers.
Port truckers have immense potential social power. They are a vital part of the waterfront workforce and a key link in the worldwide cargo chain. Yet large numbers remain ensnared by the “owner-operator” system that downloads all the risks and costs of trucking onto individual truckers. This system also impacts negatively on the political outlook and consciousness of many truckers by giving rise to an entrepreneurial mentality. Do they identify with the workers, or do they aspire to become a boss? The idea that by owning your own truck you can get ahead and maybe even start your own business is a myth that does not stand up against the harsh reality.
Some 150 cutthroat trucking companies operate at the Vancouver port, fuelling the pernicious practice of undercutting that has seen some drivers forced to work for even less than the already-low standard rates. An additional burden is that port truckers must meet the costs of expensive emission controls in the name of keeping the port “green.”
In 2005, the port truckers, then largely owner-operators, struck for 47 days. In the aftermath, the port authority imposed a moratorium on new owner-operator permits. The result is that today a slight majority of truckers, 54 percent, are employees rather than owner-operators. Going into this year’s strike, drivers had not seen a wage or rate increase for eight years; many were making less than they did in 2006. Average pay was just $15.69 an hour, much less than the $23 made by other B.C. truckers, with employees getting slightly more than owner-operators. More than half are paid by the trip rather than by the hour and work eleven-hour days under gruelling conditions. Cutbacks inside the port have contributed to longer wait times—up to six hours—which were hitherto unpaid. Less than a third of the workers get health and pension benefits. As one trucker told our comrades on the picket line, “We were slaves in India and we are slaves in Canada.”
Like the truckers that work U.S. coastal ports, Vancouver port truckers remain largely non-union. Recent years have seen repeated protests and strikes by port truckers in cities up and down the East and Gulf Coasts as well as the West Coast, from Los Angeles to Seattle, but the Vancouver strike was by far the most sustained. In the course of this struggle, many of the divisions between unionized Unifor workers and the non-union UTA fell away as strikers stood shoulder to shoulder on the picket lines, their banners intermingled. But organizing all the port truckers into a common union—part of organizing all port workers—remains a vital task.
As they return to work, many port truckers are already wondering how the gains won in the new deal will be enforced. Indeed, truckers at a mass UTA meeting on March 27 heard that some 60 men had been fired by trucking companies who claimed no work was available. Most have since been rehired. But this underlines the workforce’s vulnerability to the whims of the bosses. Instead of the parasitic, profit-gouging trucking companies deciding who gets to work, port truckers need to be fully unionized with their own union hiring hall and a strong seniority system to undercut favouritism and reprisals.
Overturning the whole owner-operator system that enslaves drivers to the trucking companies will take hard class struggle by all unions on the waterfront. Coupled with a fight for all drivers to get full union-scale wages and benefits, the entire owner-operator scam could be shattered. Port truckers would come to view joining the ranks of organized labour as wage workers as a far better alternative to their present destitution.
For United Struggle by All Port Workers!
The truckers fought hard and managed to shut down a good part of PMV’s operations, but they stood alone as the rest of the labour movement did little to support this vital class battle. What was posed was a struggle to shut down all the terminals, from Burrard Inlet to the Fraser River, bringing Canada’s only major West Coast port to a standstill. Such a class-struggle perspective requires confronting and defying the bosses’ laws. Tactics like secondary boycotts, hot-cargoing and sympathy strikes are what built the unions in the first place. Today, however, they are more and more alien to a pro-capitalist labour leadership that is mired in legalism and loyalty to the social-democratic New Democratic Party (NDP).
It took three weeks for the slick bureaucrats who lead the B.C. Federation of Labour to even call a rally in support of the truckers. Some 1,500 hospital workers, teachers and others joined the protest in downtown Vancouver on March 21. But the union movement should have been putting its muscle to work on the picket lines, helping to ensure that nothing moved in the port.
Criminally, leaders of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) did the opposite. Chained to the job by the legalistic union tops, longshoremen continued to load and unload ships. The ILWU brass did not express even pro forma solidarity with the port truckers. Some of the South Asian UTA truckers have also reported being harassed and bullied by members of the ILWU, and examples of racist conduct were mentioned to our supporters on the picket lines. This is poisonous and can only weaken the position of all port workers in the face of the profit-hungry bosses.
Longshoremen should recall that many decades ago they were in a situation not so different from that of the truckers today, treated as “contract labour,” forced to line up for the morning “shape up” in which they were hired by corrupt gang bosses based on favouritism and kickbacks. Their strikes were broken and their unions wrecked. The solidarity of truckers at the San Francisco port was crucial to the eventual victory of the 1934 strike that laid the basis for the founding of the ILWU as a powerful industrial union. The workers movement will either advance as one or be thrown back separately.
Immigrant Workers: Key to Class Struggle
The truckers’ action sparked widespread sympathy among the large Punjabi community in the Vancouver area. Sikh temples fed strikers while local Punjabi radio stations gave the strike extensive coverage. On March 21, strikers and supporters flooded a Skytrain transit station in the heavily South Asian suburb of Surrey during the morning rush hour to galvanize support.
The strike showed how crucial immigrant and other minority workers are to the class struggle, but it also underscored their vulnerability. At least one boss threatened a trucker with deportation if he backed the strike. This drives home that it is in the direct interest of the labour movement to defend all workers, regardless of status, while fighting for full citizenship rights for all immigrants.
When supporters of the Trotskyist League visited the picket lines, strikers snapped up copies of Workers Vanguard with the article “For a Class-Struggle Fight to Organize Port Truckers!” (No. 1038, 24 January). On March 24 at Deltaport, a group of some 50 truckers applauded a TL representative as he declared our solidarity and saluted the strikers’ determination. Speaking in Punjabi, he explained that we are a Marxist organization and “look to workers as the social power to overthrow this capitalist state.” He continued, “Whether it is the NDP, Liberals or Conservatives, they have always tried to break picket lines and force workers back to work.” Indeed, every time it has run the B.C. provincial government, the NDP has upheld capitalist rule, including through breaking workers strikes, from pulp, rail and other workers in 1975 to school support workers in 2000.
The labour movement is under sustained attack at every level as unions, jobs, pensions and every other benefit are shredded. The response of the union bureaucrats has overwhelmingly been marked by cowardice, defeatism and a paralyzing acceptance of the bosses’ laws and rules. The outcome of the Vancouver port truckers’ struggle gives a taste of what would be possible if workers social power was unleashed around a consistent class-struggle program.
For the workers to prevail against the exploiters, they must be armed with the understanding that labour and capital have no common interests. This perspective requires a political fight against the pro-capitalist union misleaders and their NDP political partners. The working people need their own multiracial workers party, which would be in the forefront of the struggles against union-busting and act as a beacon for workers and the oppressed everywhere. Only in this way can the workers go forward to their own class rule, ripping the means of production from the exploiters through socialist revolution and placing them in the hands of those whose labour makes this society run.