Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

Alberta building unions threaten tar sands strike

Alberta building unions threaten oil sands strike
Tue Jul 24, 2007 1:27 PM EDT

By Scott Haggett

CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - Five Alberta construction unions have voted in favor of their first strike in a quarter of a century as they seek higher wages and improved working conditions at a slate of multibillion-dollar oil sands projects.

Electricians, boilermakers, plumbers and pipefitters, millwrights, and refrigeration mechanics have approved a strike and 72-hour notice could be served as soon as Wednesday, though a quick walk-off is not yet certain, an analyst said.

"This doesn't mean that a strike is going to happen but we're in a position where it could," said Mark Friesen, an analyst at FirstEnergy Capital. "It's a risk that can't be ignored."

If the workers were to strike, it would be the first wide-scale stoppage in the Alberta oil industry in a generation, according to a union official.

"The last time there was labor action was 1979," said Barry Salmon, a spokesman for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

The workers are seeking wage increases and some changes to working conditions but are also asking for a two-year contract instead of a four-year agreement with the lion's share of pay raises in the first two years.

"Length of contract is one of the biggest issues," Salmon said. "I think members would expect to see higher (wage increase) numbers in the third or fourth years if they were to commit to them now."

Neil Tidsbury, president of Construction Labour Relations, which bargains on behalf of employers, said contracts offering pay raises of up to 25 percent over four years have been ratified or accepted by 16 of the 25 construction unions, a pattern agreement that's being offered to the others.

Tidsbury said he expects negotiations will continue despite the strike vote.

"Our objective is to get this settled and that is what we are focusing on," he said. "We've got a meeting with them Friday and we'll see where that goes."

Many oil sands projects use a mix of union and nonunion labor and some, under Alberta labor laws, may not be picketed by strikers. Still a strike could delay projects and further add to costs that are already counted in the billions.

Friesen said a strike would have the largest affect on companies such as Nexen Inc. and Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., whose oil-sands projects are closest to completion, while raising costs for all.

"It's a pretty significant threat to projects," he said.

© Reuters 2007. All Rights Reserved.

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