News / Vancouver

Sobering strike: truckers' labour dispute hits wine, liquor businesses

Get ready for a dry spring. And we're not talking about the weather. Local wine merchants and distillers say unless they get their hands on the containers piling up at backlogged Port Metro Vancouver (PMV) terminals, local drinkers will soon have to find alternative social lubricants.

"The fact is, we're running out of stock," said Robert Simpson, general manager at Liberty Wine Merchants, the largest chain of private wine stores in Western Canada and one of many local businesses whose latest imports are stuck at the port. "We've got some Italian prosecco, which is a sparking wine out of Italy, we've got some rosé for spring, we've got some sparking wine from Burgundy."

All of that and more is staying put at the port as the container truckers' dispute enters its third week. Simpson remembers a similar scenario the last time truckers held a strike nine years ago in a dispute that took 47 days to resolve.

"If you had a dark container on top of the pile, then a lot of your wine and beer got cooked," he said. This time, with two containers held up at the port, he'd prefer not to wait that long. Simpson said Liberty is now trying to move its precious wine cargo by rail -- it would end up in the distant suburbs, but could then be trucked to bonded warehouses for inspection, then on to retail outlets. If that fails, Simpson said he'll have to reorder the vintages anew and have them shipped in a way that bypasses the Vancouver terminals altogether, perhaps through ports in Seattle or Oakland, then across the border by truck.

"I am sympathetic with the truckers," he said. "I know for a fact they spend hours down at the port waiting to get their load. It shouldn't take half a day to take one container and drive it to Annacis Island, that's crazy."

Long wait times at the terminals are one of the key sticking points in this labour dispute, along with wages, which unionized and non-union drivers say are so low they barely cover the costs of keeping the trucks running. The Federal Transport Minister recently brought in respected labour negotiator Vince Ready, but his mandate to review industry conditions by the end of May did little to ease tensions at Canada's busiest port. PMV officials said trucking operations had slowed to a trickle this week, with 90 percent of containers due to leave by truck simply piling up at terminals at a cost the port is passing on to their eventual recipients in the form of storage fees.

"Up to now we're paying $240 a day and tomorrow it goes to $350 a day," said Gordon Glanz, founder of Odd Society Spirits, a small distillery in East Vancouver whose new brewhouse hardware -- a fermenter, kettle, mash tun and hot liquor tank -- finally arrived from China in a shipping container Glanz can't get to until it clears customs and gets trucked out of the secure port facility.

"It feels like we're held hostage. We can't take it out and yet they're charging us for it. And if you don't pay your fees, you don't get your equipment in the end, so really we have no choice," said Glanz. "Our back fence is right on the tracks and the port is right behind us. We've fantasized about running across the tracks and pulling it over."

Glanz said local breweries have been helping supply grain mash -- in order to make whiskey one must first make beer -- but those arrangements were slated to end once his new brewing hardware arrived in Vancouver.

Wine and spirits are hardly the only industries suffering during this labour fight. PMV said other imports that enter its terminals in containers include electronics, clothing, shoes, food, sporting goods, medical products, car parts and construction materials.

On Tuesday, the federal NDP called on the Transport Minister to take immediate action to address the concerns of striking truckers.

“The Port of Metro Vancouver is crucial to our economy,” said Surrey North MP Jasbir Sandhu, also Official Opposition Critic for the Asia-Pacific Gateway, in a statement. “It’s important to get it fully functioning again, but in a way that is fair to both truckers and business.”

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