The recent trucking disruption at Port Metro Vancouver is another reminder of the importance of risk management practices for supply chain managers. Granted, it would have been difficult to see this one coming as it was initiated by mostly non-union drivers who are members of the United Truckers Association (UTA). The dispute was between those drivers and their employers, the companies that carry cargo to and from the Port on behalf of importers and exporters. Drivers had been complaining about compensation related to waiting-time at the Port, specifically time spent waiting to pick up, or discharge, containers. Makes sense when you consider that drivers who are paid by the trip, rather than by the hour, can spend the better part of a day waiting around without compensation.
According to various news reports on the disruption, approximately 1,000 UTA drivers withdrew services (i.e. walked off the job), on February 26th. That drew lots of attention to a rapid slowdown in operations, leaving Port Metro Vancouver to declare they were caught in the middle. That also makes sense when you consider that the Port does not employ, or contract directly, with drivers. The dispute was between the UTA drivers and the trucking companies they work for. Port Metro Vancouver just happened to be the place where drivers stopped going to work in order to make their point.
And they certainly made their point. Port Metro Vancouver is Canada’s busiest Port, whose operations extend over 600 km of coastline and include four separate container terminals. Last year Port Metro Vancouver handled more than 135 million tonnes of cargo, including almost 3 million containers, the conveyance of choice for consumer goods. In other words, it’s a busy place, and getting busier every year, which makes Port congestion an ongoing challenge for everyone involved. And that meant a lot of importers and exporters were also caught in the middle.
Things ramped up considerably on March 12th when the UTA drivers were joined by about 400 unionized drivers who were members of Unifor. On its website, Unifor describes itself as Canada’s largest private sector union, representing more than 300,000 members working in telecommunications, transportation, resources, manufacturing and service industries. In other words, lots of potential clout.
A lot of players were at the table trying to find a speedy resolution, including drivers, their employers, the Port Authority and the provincial government. The federal government also played a role as mandated by the Canada Marine Act, which requires federal oversight of 18 Port Authorities across the country designated with strategic importance. Everyone had a vested interest in resolving the issue, and to everyone’s credit, it was resolved relatively quickly, with Port Metro Vancouver announcing on March 27th that the 28-day labour disruption had ended.
But there’s a lesson here for importers and exporters. Many companies have embraced globalization, depending on a much greater number of suppliers to mitigate the effects of extended supply chains. The labour disruption in Port Metro Vancouver reminds us that some of these challenges can occur close to home. And let’s not forget there are a number of other large Ports across the country, including Prince Rupert, Montreal, Halifax, Belledune and Halifax to name just a few, that importers and exporters depend on daily.
How do you prepare for a situation like this in future? If Port operations play a role in your company’s ability to achieve competitive advantage, risk management best-practices would imply that it makes sense to try and identify the potential bottlenecks at a particular Port. In the case of Port Metro Vancouver for example, users can look for information on a number of websites, including the BC Federation of Labour and the BC Bargaining Database. Transport Canada’s website provides an excellent overview of the Port programs in Canada, as do many individual Port Authorities, and the Association of Canadian Port Authorities. Better yet, talk to your suppliers. Sharing information is a large part of supplier relationships. Every once in a while you have to stand back, take a look at the bigger picture, and make sure you can identify all the players in your supply chain.
Posted by: Laurie Turnbull, CITT, P.MM – Supply Chain Consultant, Cole International
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