September 23, 2022

1,000 union workers leave work at Seaspan shipyards in Vancouver

Shipbuilding work for the federal government will come to a halt this week at Vancouver Shipyards in North Van as around 1,000 union trades refused to cross picket lines set up by striking tug captains.

Construction work on huge joint support ships for the federal government was halted this week at Seaspan shipyards in Vancouver as about 1,000 union workers refused to cross picket lines set up by tug captains striking.

More than 1,000 people, including welders, pipe fitters, electricians and a host of other trades, are usually at work in the North Vancouver shipyards, where the construction of two massive Navy Joint Support Ships and an offshore science vessel for the Coast Guard is underway.

Workers on sick leave since Friday

But these workers have refused to cross the picket lines since Friday.

Pickets are also in place at Vancouver Drydock, another division of Seaspan based in North Vancouver.

The labor dispute at the huge shipping company began last month when unionized tug captains quit work on Seaspan tugboats over a contract negotiation dispute with the company.

The Canadian Merchant Navy Guild represents ship captains and engineers who work on tugboats that provide assistance to ships docking in the harbor as well as on barges throughout the south coast. Their contract expired in 2019.

The union posted a notice on its website on Aug. 25 announcing that contract negotiations with Seaspan’s shipping division had reached an impasse and a strike was beginning at noon that day.

Seaspan tug crews on strike

Seaspan is one of the largest tug and barge operators on the coast, providing assistance with vessel mooring, tanker escort and emergency towing. It operates 30 tugs and is one of the largest tug operators in the Port of Vancouver.

A Labor Relations Board ruling on Sept. 1 allowed striking Marine Division tug workers to set up picket lines preventing shipyard workers from reporting for work. Since then, “virtually no unionized employees have come forward to work at the Vancouver shipyards,” Seaspan spokesman Ali Hounsell said.

The company plans to challenge the labor board’s decision, she added.

Meanwhile, some unionized shipyard workers have joined striking tug crews on the picket lines to show their support this week.

Neither the Canadian Merchant Navy Guild, representing the striking tug crews, nor Seaspan commented on the sticking points in the dispute.

Workers at the picket line said the contract dispute is primarily about wage increases.

If the work stoppage continues for any length of time, it could cause further delays to the federal shipbuilding program at Seaspan, which has already been plagued with setbacks.

In late June, Ottawa announced that the scheduled delivery date for the two Joint Support Ships had been pushed back by two years – the latest of several schedule revisions. The first ship is now expected to be delivered in 2025, while the second ship will not be completed until 2027.

Strike hits freighters and cruise ships in port

The tug strike has also caused delays in the movement of freighters and cruise ships through the Port of Vancouver.

In late August, four cruise ships and three bulk cargo ships in port were prevented from leaving or arriving in port on time or getting bunker fuel when scheduled, according to the Port of Vancouver.

At one point, around 2,500 passengers aboard the Celebrity Eclipse, which was delayed leaving port, expressed their displeasure at the delay on social media, saying they were being held “hostage” on the ship.

The problem was apparently caused after Seaspan workers left a barge moored to the huge vessel and then refused to move it.

The problem was finally solved.

There was no word this week on other movements around the port that have been affected by the strike.

A port authority spokesperson said the port “continues to work with multiple parties, including Transport Canada, to quickly resolve operational delays.”

Approximately 14 vessels a day require tug escort and berthing assistance in the Port of Vancouver, and Seaspan is one of four tug assistance providers and one of two bunker providers in the port.