VANCOUVER, March 19 (Reuters) - The British Columbia government is preparing legislation to force striking container truck drivers to return to work at Port Metro Vancouver, in an effort to end a three-week strike that has crippled operations at Canada's largest port.
The province said on Wednesday that it intends to introduce the legislation, which would only affect unionized drivers at the city's port facilities, as soon as Monday.
In a coordinated move, Port Metro Vancouver said it would begin planned reforms of its container truck licensing system and would move to cancel the licenses of non-unionized truckers who do not immediately return to work.
"These actions are necessary and are required today to protect the economy, protect jobs for British Columbians and Canadians, and keep goods and services moving across the country," the port and government said in a joint statement.
But Unifor, the union that represents many drivers at Port Metro Vancouver, said back-to-work legislation will only make matters worse in the long-running dispute and that all parties should return to the table to negotiate a solution.
"Stripping workers of their right to negotiate fair working conditions is not leadership," said Jerry Dias, Unifor's national president, in a statement. "We're actively seeking a resolution that works for everyone, but that can't be done if the minister doesn't take workers' rights seriously."
The move toward legislating the drivers back to work comes after a 14-point action plan announced last week failed to end the strike, which has delayed the transport of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of goods.
The province, federal government and port say their plan addresses driver concerns by ensuring fair pay, reduced wait times and the creation of an industry oversight committee, but the drivers say they have questions and concerns that have not yet been answered.
"We're close to going back to work here, but we want some surety that the wait times are going to be addressed," said Manny Dosange of the United Truckers Association, a non-profit group that speaks for many of the non-union drivers.
For independent drivers, long waits at port facilities while cargoes are loaded and unloaded make it nearly impossible to run enough loads in a day to turn a profit, he said.
Hundreds of non-unionized drivers parked their rigs on Feb. 26 in protest over increased wait times at Vancouver's container terminals, which cut into their profits. They are paid by the haul and do not make money while waiting in line to load or unload cargo.
Unionized workers voted to join the strike just days later and officially walked off the job early last week. Both groups are also demanding enforced pay rates, to help prevent trucking companies from undercutting one another.
The work action has paralyzed operations at Port Metro Vancouver's four container terminals, slowing the transport of commodities such as lumber, pulp products and specialized grains, along with household goods and construction materials.
This comes as rising Asian demand for Canadian products has led to a boom at Canada's largest and busiest port, which handled a record 135 million tonnes of cargo in 2013, including about 25 million tonnes of containerized material.
There are some 2,000 container trucks licensed to operate in the Vancouver area. Unifor, Canada's largest private sector union, has said it represents up to 400 drivers, depending on the season, though the port put that number at about 250.
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)