Justice in the Long Haul:
Container Truck Drivers’ strike gains ground against contractors
An interview with Ravinder Garcha, officer of the Vancouver Truck Drivers Association (VCTA)
By Ivan Drury
Almost every night since the Vancouver Container Truck Drivers’ Association (VCTA) strike began on June 24th, the evening news has featured shots of dismayed shopkeepers and frustrated representatives of shipping contractors. For the most part, except for nameless men at information pickets or scandalous images of smashed up scab trucks, the truckers have been invisible.
Even tonight, Tuesday August 2nd, four days after Federally and Provincially appointed labor mediator Vince Ready delivered his recommendations, two days after the VCTA passed a sweeping 90% vote to accept and the contracting companies unanimously rejected his suggestions, and one day after the Vancouver Port Authority issued a 90 day remedy decision that nearly exactly echoed Ready’s call, again, only to be rejected by the contractors, the song remains the same. Rather than point fingers at the contractors as greedy, uncooperative, stubborn extenders of a painful dispute (as they certainly would have if it had been the drivers rejecting Ready’s recommendations), many news stations repeated the same company refrain: that the truckers are tying up the port shipments with “unrealistic” demands for a “morally bankrupt” agreement. In a bizarre twist, even the federal government has cooperated with the Vancouver Port Authority’s (VPA) move, suspending competition laws that could challenge the legality of the Port’s solution for 90 days in order to allow the VPA, the truckers and the contracting companies “some time to find a long-term solution” as explained a Port Authority spokesperson.
Even BC Labor Minister Mike de Jong recognized the long-term problem behind this strike. On July 29, the same day that Ready delivered his findings, he said, in reference to 1999’s similar strike-ending deal that collapsed more quickly than it had been made, “This is the second go-around, so the lesson here is that we can’t apply a band-aid and have the same issues reappear.” This apparent division within the ruling class is even odder when you consider that, if you are interested in seeking out the source of this problem, you will definitely find the 1987 joint government-company trucking industry deregulation project at fault.
No one, not the Provincial or Federal governments, and certainly not the contracting companies, are discussing re-regulation as a possibility. So what is really going on? Could it be that the Ports and the government both think that the contracting companies have gone too far?
To be sure, none of them have the interests of the truckers at heart. For almost 20 years they have watched truckers’ wages and conditions fall from that of a relatively highly paid industry across the board to an average wage of less than $15 an hour (including union truck drivers who are not involved in this dispute) and to where too many truckers actually lose money by working because of the high costs of operating a rig and the low / unreliable pay of being an independent owner-operator. Neither of these parties that are now emerging as champions of “getting containers moving again” lifted an eyebrow at the corrupt and unaccountable bureaucracy of contractors that have been stripping isolated truckers of their wages for nearly two decades. Yet any news of the poverty of trucking cannot come as a surprise to them: they, along with the contractors, engineered it in order to cut costs and “reinvigorate” trucking with the bitter medicine of free market deregulation.
If anything has taken them by surprise it is that the truckers, an unorganized and thought to be “unorganizable” scattering of independent owner-operators, organized themselves and have held container traffic at a standstill for over a month already. The unforeseen factor, the underestimated and forgotten workers, has emerged as a humble but impossible-to-dislodge wrench in the gears of the Port and, increasingly, all levels of business in Western Canada. Seventy-five million dollars a week does not disappear from the Canadian economy unnoticed. It took one month of this loss for the Ports (big capitalism) and the government itself to find the cog in their machine that they could knock back a couple inches to dislodge the workers wrench and get the machine rolling again. This cog, the contracting companies, is one of their own.
And sure enough, late Tuesday August 2nd, having heard the calls of bigger business, who themselves were acting under pressure exercised by the VCTA, the contractors have come to heel. Going back on their less-than-day-old unanimous decision, half of the contracting companies have decided to abide by the 90-day ultimatum laid down by the Ports and accept Ready’s deal for 90 days, or stay off the Ports. Surely the remaining companies must follow, or be left behind.
This is a tremendous victory for the truckers. VCTA organizer Ravinder Garcha explained, “Basically, it’s what the VCTA wanted. We wanted a little bit of a raise in the rates for our containers; standardization of invoices, a fuel surcharge has been put in place, a lot of things that have been a big headache.”
This victory has demonstrated that the only path that will advance their wages and conditions is struggle, and their example will be a lesson for all working people in BC. Only through uniting with other working people against the contracting companies, capitalist business and Provincial and Federal government can working people guarantee our own wages, conditions and futures. For the VCTA themselves, this principle of struggle will lead through the 90-day period to a working and workable contract with the contractors and the Ports. In one form or another, their struggle continues, and Fire This Time is proud to stand with them.
In this struggle, the voices most seldom heard have been the voices of the most important players, the truckers and the VCTA themselves. On Tuesday August 2nd, Fire This Time spoke with VCTA organizer Ravinder Garcha just after he got out of a meeting to decide how the VCTA will meet the non-cooperation of the Contractors.
FTT: What do the majority of the Truckers in the VCTA think of the deal that Vince Ready has proposed?
Ravinder Garcha: They think it’s great! We had a vote on that a couple days ago and we voted 90% in favor of agreeing to his recommendations. At the same day, a couple hours later, the companies disagreed with it. But as of today, roughly 20 companies have signed that agreement, so you will see trucks on the road tomorrow.
FTT: Why did some reject the recommendation at first and others have accepted it now?
Ravinder Garcha: The companies that rejected it didn’t give any reasons whatsoever. The Vancouver Port Authority (VPA) had stepped up a little bit and said that if the companies do not sign the referendum that’s been passed on by Vince Ready - the VPA has recognized it - and if the companies don’t recognize it, then they won’t be allowed on the port.
FTT: Minister Mike De Jong talked about this being a short-term solution and that there needs to be a long-term solution. What do you think the Port’s decision means for truckers in the long term?
Ravinder Garcha: They’ve given us a 90 day window, and hopefully the task force that will be in place for the next 90 days will have some sort of a system in place for us to monitor trucks coming into the port and will hopefully put and end to all the BS that has been going on for the last 10 or 15 years.
For 10 years or so now the fuel prices have been going up, companies have been undercutting us, they’ve been trying to come up with reasons that we do not get bonuses for all the hard work we do and eventually, now our costs are exceeding our revenues. The biggest reason for the downfall in the last 15 years is undercutting; new companies opening up and undercutting. If there was a can that was worth $100, it’s gone down to as low as $50 right now, almost a 60% decrease in the container rate just so somebody can open up a company and make a quick buck.
FTT: What do you think the long-term solution is going to be?
Ravinder Garcha: Hopefully the long-term solution is the one Mr. Ready proposed to us and to the owners. It’s a two-year contract right now, and hopefully in those two years we’ll be happy with it if we get it, then hopefully the BC economy and the public doesn’t have to feel our pain and our suffering. We’re the ones who get hit the hardest. A lot of guys have been working for free and a lot of guys got kids, wives, no money and it’s hard. We’ve been surviving on almost nothing.
FTT: Are all truckers going to be going back to work in the next couple days?
Ravinder Garcha: Only the ones that have the owners that have signed on to the Port’s decision, that’s roughly 20 companies, around 200 drivers or so.
The biggest players in the game have not signed up, but hopefully they will by Thursday 8am, which is the deadline for signing up… because there’ll be no one going into the ports who has not signed Vince Ready’s referendum.
FTT: Some trucks running will definitely act as economic pressure against the companies that are refusing the deal.
Ravinder Garcha: Definitely. If an owner sees other companies running he’s gonna be threatened by that other company that’s running because they were the ones that were smart enough to say, ‘enough is enough, I’m ready to give the guys what they deserve.’ It took them five weeks, but we respect that. Even though it took them five weeks, they’ve signed up and they’re saying they’re ready to go, and they’re going. They’ll put pressure on other companies to go to work, because there’s gonna be a lot of work that’s up for grabs.
But out of respect for our brothers we’re not going to be pulling any loads for any customers who already are on a working relationship basis with other brokers who have not signed. Also, we’re not going to work until all the lawsuits against us have been dropped – Hudson's Bay, Walmart, Westfair foods and more. We want those lawsuits dropped before we go to work.
FTT: What are those lawsuits about?
Ravinder Garcha: These lawsuits have been set up against the VCTA, against us as ‘unknown persons’ but we didn’t do nothing! We just didn’t provide services to the broker. It goes through the broker! Why are these big companies going after us? We’re just drivers!
FTT: Well it sounds like this proposal is going to make life more livable for truckers.
Ravinder Garcha: All truckers are 100% in support of how everything is going. Oh yes, it’ll be a different thing to drive a truck now. You know how BC is always advertising on TV about new jobs, new initiatives. You see a young guy standing beside a truck, trying to sell the driving industry. We’re the only port in Western Canada; you’ve got one in Seattle and one down in LA there. We had support from the west coast, we had money coming in, people donated money for our cause. We had $100 here, $100 there; it was all appreciated and much respected.
There was a big strike in 1999 and it was supposed to solve everything and in two weeks everything fell apart. Now we have the VCTA set up, we have lawyers, we have Ken Halliday, we have Mr. Sinclair, we have the help of a lot of people that we needed in this game. If we weren’t in this game everything would just be on pause as it was for these last few weeks.
Hopefully this will make the life easier and will attract new drivers into our industry so we can put any negative stuff that has ever been talked or said about any truck driver behind us. We weren’t to blame for it and now the public knows that the brokers are the ones who have held up the work. We voted 90% for Vince Ready’s deal and they voted ‘no’ and now 20 or so have said ‘yes’ and we’ve got half of them to go. I hope that by Monday I will see all the trucks on the road, all my brothers on the road. A lot of them got kids and families and they haven’t taken them anywhere for any type of vacation, wives that are sick and tired of their husbands not being at home and hopefully this puts an end to it.
FTT: Great news. Congratulations on a long and successful struggle.
Ravinder Garcha: We still have some work to do, and some things we have to work out here and there, but 80% has been resolved and the rest we’re hoping to solve ASAP.
FTT: Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us.
Ravinder Garcha: Thank you.
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