June 2009

North of 49°
New Work Ferries in Vancouver Island Shipyard’s Comeback

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The sounds of shipyard craftsmen at work are finally returning to Esquimalt Graving Dock—the largest marine dry dock on Canada’s West Coast—after years of quiet.

The dock, located in Victoria, British Columbia, is seeing a surge in federal construction dollars to modernize the facility. And new government and private shipping contracts for Victoria Shipyards, the biggest shipbuilder on the island, are creating new jobs for Victoria Local 230 members.

“We’ve made a huge comeback on the docks,” said Local 230 Business Manager Phil Venoit. “We were down to a skeleton crew of about nine guys in the ’90s. Now we’re looking at topping more than 100 members.”

Much of the new work is due to increased spending by the Depart-ment of National Defense to beef up the navy’s and coast guard’s fleets.

In one of the biggest projects the shipyard has seen in decades, more than a dozen Local 230 members were involved in wiring over 30 coast guard search-and-rescue ships, which were completed four years ago, said Local 230 member George Kohorst. Kohorst, now an electrical instructor at Camosun College, was the lead field engineer on the project.

The ships were even featured on the TV program “The Guard.”

The $60 million contract was completed 14 months earlier than planned. The Canadian government was so pleased with the IBEW’s work that the local was awarded a contract for eight training ships for the navy.

Starting this fall, the shipyard will perform maintenance on the Canadian navy’s West Coast submarine fleet, opening up dozens of new jobs. Local 230 is expected to have more than 170 electricians working on the dock by 2010, Venoit said.

The dock, which dates back to before Confederation, has traditionally been one of the busiest in North America, building ships for both the British and Canadian navies.

But the 1980s saw the beginnings of a slowdown as Prime Minister Brian Mulroney instituted cutbacks to naval spending and ended federal subsidies to the shipbuilding industry, helping to bring work on the dock to a near halt.

“The shipbuilding industry is a three-legged chair,” said Venoit, who started in the shipyards in 1980. “It requires support from the federal and provincial governments and private industry. Saw off one of those legs and the whole thing could fall over.”

Despite the federal dollars now coming in, the IBEW, along with other shipyard unions, is still pushing for all B.C. ferry work to be done at B.C. shipyards. They have launched a grassroots campaign to persuade members of the legislative assembly to overturn the decision by the anti-labour Liberal government to award ferry building and maintenance contracts to foreign companies.

British Columbia has one of the largest ferry services in North America.

“If the federal government trusts us to maintain their submarines and naval work, British Columbia can entrust us to build their ferries,” Venoit said.

Some of the more than 30 search-and-rescue ships built for the Canadian coast guard by members of Victoria, British Columbia, Local 230, were ferried up the East Coast for service in the Maritimes.