Cargo shipments are already diverting to U.S. terminals in anticipation of a potential strike by longshoremen that would shut down B.C. port operations.
Thousands of workers with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Canada (ILWU) held a strike vote this week.
The results aren't yet tabulated and the earliest workers could be on strike is next Monday – when a 21-day cooling off period ends – if 72-hour strike notice is issued later this week.
But B.C. Maritime Employers Association spokesman Greg Verdula said its 62 member shipping firms and terminals here are already feeling the impacts as customers send shipments through other U.S. ports.
"It's causing significant cargo diversion to U.S. west coast ports," he said. "The mere mention of labour uncertainty causes cargo to begin to divert and with irresponsible actions like this, that uncertainty intensifies."
Verdula said some big Canadian carriers are already sending at least half their cargo through Seattle-Tacoma instead of local terminals and they're aiming to boost that to 100 per cent by early next week.
A walkout would shut all international shipping through Port Metro Vancouver, including Deltaport and Fraser Surrey Docks, as well as other B.C. ports such as Prince Rupert.
Most domestic shipping between points on the B.C. coast would likely be unaffected.
Verdula estimated a shutdown would affect 72,000 workers in B.C. and cause vast economic damage.
He said the employer group is disappointed the union opted to take a strike vote even though the two sides are in federally mandated mediation.
"In today's struggling economy and fragile recovery, we consider their actions to be absolutely irresponsible."
If workers do walk, they likely won't stay out long.
The federal government historically legislates port workers back to work within a week in such cases.
But the union might opt to wait some time to issue 72-hour notice and use the lingering threat of a strike to disrupt business.
Verdula said that underscores the BCMEA's position that there should be a method for going directly to binding arbitration to avoid any spectre of a strike crippling the strategic Asia-Pacific gateway.
The ILWU has said that would run contrary to its collective bargaining rights.
The Canadian Industrial Relations Board last month ruled in favour of the union, rejecting the BCMEA's claim the ILWU was bargaining in bad faith.
ILWU president Tom Dufresne stressed the strike vote doesn't mean job action will ensue, adding the two sides are slated to resume talks Monday.
He accused Verdula and the BCMEA of stirring up more industry uncertainty with reckless comments.
“Irresponsible brinkmanship on the part of the BCMEA has brought us to this point," Dufresne said. "In spite of the fact that the BCMEA continues to prefer conflict over compromise, the ILWU remains ready to enter into a reasonable settlement."
Port Metro Vancouver chief operating officer Chris Badger said he remains hopeful the two sides can reach an agreement without job action.
"Any perception by the customers that the reliability of the gateway is under threat
will have an impact on the reputation of the gateway," he said.
The last time port operations were disrupted was in 2005 when container truckers struck for six weeks.