VANCOUVER — A tentative agreement has been reached in a labour dispute that threatened to shut down all ports in British Columbia and have a ripple effect across the Canadian economy.
The International Longshore and Warehouse Union said Thursday the deal was reached after all-night bargaining with the British Columbia Maritime Employers Association.
About 6,500 longshore workers at ports from Metro Vancouver to Prince Rupert had already begun setting up picket lines as a lockout notice issued by the association expired Thursday morning.
Union president Rob Ashton said no details of the agreement will be released until ratification votes are held by union members.
"It was fair and balanced and was hard earned by both parties over the course of the last 17 months and we believe it will set the stage for healthy growth of cargo," he said, standing along side Mike Leonard, president of employers association as they announced the agreement.
Both Leonard and Ashton took part in the negotiations with the help of a federal mediator.
The two sides negotiated for 24 hours leading up to the lockout deadline, Ashton said.
"Both committees did their job. Both committees worked hard for the people that they represent and out of that came a fair deal."
Leonard said negotiating the tentative agreement was the result they wanted in the way they wanted to achieve it.
"We are not relying on government intervention and the best way is to get a deal between the parties and that is what happened here."
He said everyone is relieved that the port is back open for business.
"It's gruelling. It's something that you don't want to repeat too often in a calendar year," Leonard said of the 24-hour bargaining session.
Jeff Scott, chairman of the employers association, said in a statement that the agreement will continue to allow B.C.'s ports to be competitive.
The association said normal operations would resume late Thursday afternoon.
"We appreciate the efforts of both parties to focus on reaching agreement and ensuring B.C. ports remain open for business," Scott said.
Automation was a key issue in the talks, with the employers association saying it would protect and enhance jobs while the union countered that automation would "decimate" ports and harm workers.
The last collective agreement expired March 31, 2018.
The employers association represents about 55 companies that employ about 7,000 workers. It said about 60 million tonnes of goods worth $53 billion are moved in and out of the ports every year.
"We are confident that this agreement, once signed, will secure a positive long-term outlook for trade and operations at our terminals, for the province and for the country,” Scott said.
Union members voted 98.4 per cent in favour of a strike earlier this month.
The port closures could have had repercussions across many industries, a professor emeritus with expertise in shipping and ports said.
Trevor Heaver, of the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business, said the spotlight in these situations is often on consumer products like electronics and retail items because the impact is felt more directly by the general public.
But bulk exports are actually more vulnerable, he said. Industries like grain and mining depend heavily on B.C.'s ports to make it to international markets when they don't have their own terminals, while imports arriving in containers can be diverted to alternative ports in places like Seattle or Los Angeles.
"The farm exports, the coal exports, the sulphur exports, the potash exports — they're not going to move if the ports close," Heaver said.
Both the cruise ship and grain terminals operations were not included in this port dispute.
— With files from Amy Smart.