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November 2014

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Life Returns to Vancouver Shipyards

Vancouver, B.C., juts like an arrowhead out of the Canadian mainland and into the Pacific Rim. Vancouver has been Canada's lighthouse, where the ocean ends and British Columbia's dark endless forests begin. The mountain-backed skyline reflecting brightly in the waters of the Strait of Georgia was built with fortunes made trading what the loggers cut down and miners pulled out for everything the factories in the U.S., Japan and now, especially, China had to offer.

But while the city has long been home to forest product and mining behemoths, banks and financial services and more recently added biotech and software startups, in recent years the outlook hasn't been as bright for the city's industrial workers. The Economist magazine may regularly rate it the most livable city in North America, but for highly skilled tradesmen at the city's three remaining shipyards, the last three decades have been a story of an industrial base in decline.

"We have a long relationship with the shipyards but we haven't had much work in the last 20 years," said Local 213 Business Manager Adam Van Steinburg. "Lots of maintenance, some smaller yachts and refits, but it's been slow."

But now a welcome change is coming. Since 2011, Seaspan, the owner of two shipyards in Vancouver and a third a few miles away on Vancouver Island, has signed contracts for at least nine new ships, with the possibility of 10 more in the future.

The Canadian government fueled the revival with the nearly $37 billion Federal Fleet Renewal program refitting and replacing dozens of Canadian navy and coast guard vessels over the next 20 years. At least 20 warships will be built at Irving Shipyards in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Seaspan won the contract for up to 17 noncombat ships including science, support, patrol and multipurpose ships and a massive polar icebreaker. The total value of the contract is between $8 and $11 billion.

Local 213 is expecting to triple the manpower at Seaspan facilities from about 100 to more than 300 over the next few years to meet demand.

"This new work is extraordinary, for Local 213, for all the unions at the shipyard and for industry in Vancouver," Van Steinburg said. "It means good jobs with good benefits for years, decades."

To prepare for the federal order, Seaspan undertook a two-year, nearly $200 million upgrade to Seaspan's Vancouver Shipyard, work done, in part, by nearly 50 members of Local 213. The work — expected to conclude by spring 2015 — included a new crane with a 300-ton lift capacity and new paint and assembly buildings.

"We had a handshake agreement [with management] that it would be 100 percent IBEW," said John Pesa, Local 213 business representative. "They didn't have to do it that way, but they were as good as their word and I think our members have paid that confidence back with the quality of the work."

Pesa says the size of the order, the tight deadlines and incentives that hold out the promise of more contracts if deadlines are met, gave the five unions involved in last year's contract negotiations a strong hand. Pesa, who is president of the so-called "Polyparty Committee" of the shipbuilders, machinists, pipefitters, office professionals and Local 213, said the new five-year agreement calls for pay rises totaling nearly 17 percent and benefits increases worth nearly $1,000 a year.

While the first order will start construction in a year, the shipyard renewal is yielding benefits right now.

In February, BC Ferries announced it was awarding a $15 million contract for a new cable ferry to Seaspan's Vancouver Shipyard, and in early September, construction officially started on the nearly 240-foot ship.

While Seaspan has had maintenance and refitting contracts with BC Ferries, Pesa said this is the first new construction in many years.

"In the past, BC Ferries said we didn't have the capacity. We disagreed, but the company contracted with shipyards in Germany and Poland," Pesa said. "Obviously since the upgrade there is no question we have the people and resources to be competitive."

BC Ferries operates more than 35 passenger ships on routes as short as a mile to nearly 300, serving commuters into Vancouver to vacation goers on overnight voyages through the Inside Passage to the Yukon. When in operation, the nearly 260-foot long ship will carry 50 vehicles and 150 passengers over a mile-wide crossing.

Unlike most ships, cable ferries are not self-propelled. They are more like ski lifts, with the boat pulled by engines permanently fixed at the terminals. BC Ferries officials said fixing the engines on land will save $80 million over the 40-year life of the ferry in reduced maintenance and fuel costs. While less common than self-propelled vessels, cable ferries are used throughout the world. There are more than 60 in operation in Canada alone, according to BC Ferries officials.

More than 700 tons of steel will be used in the construction and, Pesa says, at peak about 40 IBEW members, and 100 union workers across the trades, will be on the job. Delivery is scheduled for spring 2015.

"These are good days at the shipyards," Pesa said.


Hundreds of Local 213 members are working on new ships at Seaspan's upgraded Vancouver Shipyard.