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Letting the Wildcat Out of the Bag

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Issue: 48 Section: Labour Geography: West Alberta, Fort McMurray, Edmonton Topics: labour, social movements

November 22, 2007

Letting the Wildcat Out of the Bag

Alberta's Averted Energy Tradesworker General Strike and the Fall Wildcat Walk-Outs

by Philip Neatby

Members of a carpenters' union local applaud after a strike vote in 2007.

There can be little doubt that this summer and fall yielded a significant page in Albertan Labour history. For the first time in 30 years, a collection of unions representing construction workers came to the brink of a general strike. No such strike vote has been carried out among Albertan tradeworker unions since the inception of Alberta's 1979 Labour Code. The Labour Code makes a strike prohibitively difficult in Alberta due to the requirement that 60 per cent of unions with unsettled contracts agree to a strike vote in order for any union to be able to stage any work action. This means that no union can legally hold a strike vote on its own. As noted by Alberta Federation of Labour President Gil McGowan last July, the vote "speaks to how strongly rank and file construction workers feel, that they haven't been treated fairly.”

Although a sector-wide construction strike did not actually happen, there are a few significant developments from the strike vote. The first is that, in an attempt to buy off union support, industry gave the concession of agreeing to recompense employees for the unpredictable impacts of inflation upon the wages of workers under contract. Inflation in Alberta is rapidly offsetting the high salaries being earned by workers in all sectors. The fact that industry would agree to offset these wildly unpredictable rates is an indication of the alarm caused by rumours of the impending work disruptions within tar sands sites.

In addition, the fall-out from the strike vote was a series of wildcat strike actions, for the most part carried out illegally by hundreds of rank-and-file carpenters in open challenge of the Alberta government's hostile labour laws. Although this wave of worker direct action lasted little more than a week, they have prompted organized labour in Alberta to mount a Supreme Court challenge of the Alberta Labour Code, a process which has the possibility of removing one of the biggest stumbling blocks for organized labour in Alberta.

In case you missed all of this over the summer, the timeline below runs through the basic points of interest of the averted “summer of strikes,” culminating in September's economic disruption of the energy sector.

July 4 – A strike vote is held by five unions representing 25,000 trade workers at energy industry worksites across Alberta. The representative unions of boilermakers, plumbers and pipefitters, electrical workers, millwrights and refrigerator mechanics hold simultaneous ballots in Calgary, Edmonton and Fort McMurray. Points of contention are largely “quality of life issues,” including conditions at work camps and the demand that employers provide flights for workers from their homes in Calgary to Fort McMurray rather than transporting them by bus. In addition, a predominant issue is the length of the contract offered by industry to these tradesworker unions; industry has offered a contract for four years, while the traditional standard, owing to uncertainty of inflation, has been for two years. Although the contract would offer wage increases alternating between 6.5 per cent and five per cent annually over four years, the unions argue that these increases would be eroded by skyrocketting inflation--inflation has increased by five per cent over the first six months of 2007 alone.

The unions had been without a contract since the expiry of the previous agreement in May. At stake is $100 billion worth of construction projects at oil sands sites in northeastern Alberta. The ballots are sealed until after an ironworkers union can hold its vote on July 13.

July 21 – Emergency Health workers in Calgary vote by a margin of 99 per cent for a strike, citing wage rates lower than other municipal workers. This vote, coupled with the looming strike vote of tradesworkers, prompts the Globe and Mail to warn of a “summer of strikes” throughout the West after rotating wildcat strikes also begin among 6,000 civic workers in Vancouver.

July 23 – Results of the trades strike vote are presented to the Alberta Labour Relations Board. Electrical workers vote 94 per cent in favour, while the boilermakers and plumbers vote 99 per cent and 97 per cent in favour respectively. Millwrights vote 90 per cent in favour and refrigeration mechanics vote 85 per cent in favour. However, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers(IBEW) spokesman Barry Salmon downplays the idea of a general construction workers strike, suggesting that what may happen would be rotating walk-outs.

"It just shows the level of frustration among trades," says Salmon, “This is all about getting back to the table.”

August 10 – The unions representing plumbers and pipefitters, millwrights and refrigeration mechanics agree on settlement terms with the Construction Labour Relations Association, which represents construction contractors and industry. The plumbers and pipefitters, and millrights accept the four-year wage increase offer (alternating between 6.5 per cent and five per cent for the following four years), although manage to gain adjustment to inflation for these wage increases. The unions representing refrigeration mechanics enter into a memorandum of settlement.

August 14 – The unions representing electricians formalize a memorandum in respect to the settlement framework, largely accepting the same conditions as the plumbers and pipefitters, and millwrights.

August 23 – Following the settlements on August 14, and August 10, hundreds of electrical workers and pipefitters rally in Fort McMurray in protest of their union leadership's resolution with contractors. “My thoughts on a four-year contract is it’s too long,” says worker Shane Brooks, referring to the skyrocketting housing costs in Alberta, as well as the potential erosion of their wage increases due to run-away inflation. “We don’t know what’s going to happen in four years from now.”

August 30 - A settlement is reached with the Labourers' Union, based upon the plumbers and pipefitters’ settlement of August 10. This brings the number of represented tradesworker group settlements to 17 out of 25, although the carpenters and roofers have yet to vote on the offer. Under Alberta's labour laws, if 19 trades groups reach agreement, the rest are stripped of their right to strike. But union leaders who have accepted the settlement claim that the concession by contractors to guarantee indexing of wage increases to inflation is a significant victory. “There wasn't much more to get,” says IBEW local spokesman Barry Salmon.

Results of ratification votes from the electricians, plumbers and pipefitters, and labourers are expected by September 10.

September 2 – The Alberta Federation of Labour threatens to take the Alberta government to court over the the 1979 Labour Relations Code, the Alberta law that, according to AFL President Gil McGowan, "was designed to make it almost impossible for [construction] workers to go on strike." Under the labour law, no strikes can be allowed for tradespeople if agreements are reached with 75 per cent of the bargaining units in the construction industry. McGowan's warning comes after a Supreme Court of Canada ruling in favour of B.C. healthcare workers in June. The Supreme Court ruled that the right to join a union and the right to collective bargaining were protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

September 5 – Two months after the strike vote by the five tradesworker unions, 4,000 carpenters and 100 roofers who had not been among the five trade groups to make a strike vote on July 4 vote to strike by a margin of 97 per cent. A strike notice is served to the Alberta Labour Relations Board, with job actions scheduled to take place on September 8.

September 7 – The Alberta Labour Relations Board rules that the strike vote by carpenters is illegal, claiming that another union representing labourers had not served a strike notice at the same time as the carpenters. The Alberta Regional Council of Carpenters and Allied Workers vows to carry out work stoppages in spite of the ruling.

September 10 – Wildcat strikes, focused moreso on the Labour Relations Board (LRB) than energy corporations, begin at energy industry worksites throughout Alberta. Two hundred and fifty workers walk off the job at a Petro Canada refinery project east of Edmonton and others stage a walk-out at the Long Lake project southeast of Fort McMurray. Other walk-outs occur in Calgary. The industry-backed Construction and Labour Relations Association (CLRA) responds by obtaining cease and desist orders from the LRB. Workers continue picketing outside of the LRB offices.

Electrical workers vote 50.8 per cent in favour of the CLRA settlement, although several workers claim that they never received ballots for the mail-in ballot process. Regardless, this ratification ultimately signals that, under Alberta's Labour code, no other tradesworker unions, including the carpenters who rejected the settlement, have the right to strike until the end of the contract in 2011. Meanwhile, plumbers and pipefitters vote against ratification of the CLRA settlement.

September 11 – After hundreds of tradespeople walk off job sites for the second day in a row, hundreds converge upon the Alberta legislature to demand the right to strike under Alberta Labour legislation. Alberta Regional Council of Carpenters and Allied Workers President Martyn Piper distances himself from the wildcat strikes, claiming that he has ordered workers to return to work. Piper's back to work order comes in response to Alberta Employment Minister Iris Evans' government order prohibiting pickets “at any general construction site or maintenance site in Alberta.”

The Petro-Canada upgrader project in Edmonton remains closed after other unionized tradespeople refuse to cross the carpenters' picket-line.

September 12 and 13 – In spite of the government's 'cease and desist' order, as well as a back-to-work order from the Carpenters' Union, walk-outs and protests continue throughout the week. Outside of a Petro-Canada refinery in Fort Saskatchewan, workers stage what they call a “social gathering.” Workers wave plackards bearing the slogans “don't ever give up," “united we stand, divided we beg," and “liberate Alberta, not Afghanistan” at passing traffic. Hundreds of other union workers protest in front of Edmonton's courthouse.

Frustration with union leadership seems evident at these walk-outs. "All the workers are here by their own choice, not by the union's choice," says a scaffold worker taking part in a rally at the Edmonton courthouse. "My union told me to go back to work and let them deal with it." A speaker at the demonstration who urges workers to return to work is booed off the stage.

CBC News reports that 200 unionized employees working at a steam injection site near Long Lake have been fired after clocking off work to take a first-aid course. The workers were apparently given two hours to remove their belongings from the work camp.

September 14 – Although information pickets and protests continue in Edmonton, Fort Saskatchewan and elsewhere, including a march by 300-400 workers on the Alberta legislature, the actions are much smaller than earlier in the week. Workers have begun to return to work. Union leaders and industry negotiators both welcome the end of work stoppages.

Members of the union representating Labourers (Local 92 of the Labourers International Union of North America) vote against a strike by a margin of 66 per cent, thereby ratifying the four-year contract offer by the energy industry. This brings the total number of tradeworker unions voting in favour of the contract to 20 out of 25, well over the 75 per cent required to render a strike action by any union illegal under Alberta law.

September 22 – In a weekend demonstration, hundreds of workers stage a mock funeral of the Alberta Labour Relations Code. Says Alberta Federation of Labour President Gil McGowan: “Alberta's labour laws don't facilitate collective bargaining, they discourage it...It's not only wrong; It's now illegal.”

October 1 – Four Construction unions mount a constitutional challenge to Alberta's Labour Relations laws on the basis that it violates workers' rights to freedom of assembly.

Although most tradesworker unions, including most of the unions which had initially voted for strike preparation in July, have ratified settlements with the energy industry, carpenters, roofers, and plumbers and pipefitters remain holdouts against this contract.

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