Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

Wildcat Strikes Continue to Sweep Across Alberta

Booming Alberta crippled by wildcat strikes by frustrated tradesmen
September 16, 2007

EDMONTON (CP) — Alberta's booming construction landscape is being disrupted with pickets and protests as a complicated labour law that hobbles building trade unions from striking is being attacked by hundreds of workers.

The giant Petro-Canada upgrader project in Edmonton was crippled for several days last week after unionized workers refused to cross picket lines set up by carpenters and other tradesman seeking higher wages but unable to stage a legal strike.

Alberta legislation passed two decades ago says that if 75 per cent of the province's two dozen building trade unions have settled their contracts, the others must follow suit without a strike or lockout - using an arbitrator if necessary.

Most of the trades have already settled, but the carpenters, roofers, and plumbers and pipefitters are holdouts. The provincial labour board has filed a cease and desist order against the wildcat strikes and the labour minister has set up a tribunal to arbitrate a contract settlement.

But many frustrated workers are defying the province and their own union by staying off the job. Hundreds turned out for daily protests in front of the labour board offices in downtown Edmonton and about 300 marched on the legislature Friday.

Scaffolder Frank Lander, a single dad who moved to Alberta from Newfoundland, said the dispute has created a new type of solidarity among those who work in the building trades.

"All the workers are here by their own choice, not by the union's choice," he said in an interview at the noon-hour rally. "My union told me to go back to work and let them deal with it."

Lander says he expects this dispute will eventually be settled in court, but that's not going to stop him from continuing to picket and protest against a labour law he believes is unique in Canada.

"If this was any other province, we probably would have gone on strike and the contractors would have said, 'We'd better work with these guys or we're not going to get anything done."'

Labour Minister Iris Evans concedes it's been a difficult situation for her to handle given the "many complexities" of the law that was originally designed in 1988 to avoid labour strife.

"It's not a comfortable situation," Evans said in an interview. "When you are a minister of the Crown, you have to abide by that law, even though it doesn't mean that you're not concerned about the issues that are being raised."

The minister insists that the workers must obey the law and return to work. But once "things cool off," the government will review the labour law and decide whether changes are needed.

"We can engage in discussions, listen to them and see whether or not there's another way."

Libby Davis, the federal NDP's labour critic, visited Edmonton on Friday and said she doesn't know any other jurisdiction that limits the right to strike in the way Alberta does.

"I was shocked to find out Alberta's labour laws are so out of whack with the rest of the country," Davis said. "I can certainly understand the enormous frustration and angst that these workers have."

Alberta's labour law undermines basic labour rights, she said.

"I don't know of any other jurisdiction where a union's right to strike is contingent on a whole set of complex rules about what other unions may or may not be doing."

But Alberta's construction companies defend the legislation.

Neil Tidsbury is president of Construction Labour Relations, which represents 130 construction firms in Alberta including several of the companies that are being affected by the wildcat strikes. He said the law was designed so that unions could not hold the construction industry hostage with strikes and walkouts.

The law has actually been doing what it was intended to do - preventing a "renegade" union from holding out for a better contract or striking to follow a political agenda, said Tidsbury.

"When the trades have settled with us, they do so in good faith and they do so on trust that we aren't going to give anybody else more when settling later. Otherwise we'll never get anybody to settle."

With the Alberta economy booming, labour groups are spoiling for a fight.

"Construction workers and their unions in this province are in an impossible situation," said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, as he stood among pickets eating donated pizzas and preparing to march on the legislature.

"This is really the first time that workers are in the driver's seat and they really have leverage. But now they're discovering that they're not able to take advantage of the power that the market is giving them."

McGowan said he's skeptical about the promised review. There was a similar promise after a bitter, violent strike at Lakeside Packers two years ago, but no major changes were ever made.

"Now in a time of prosperity, when workers should be getting a bigger piece of the pie, the time has come for this law to be changed so that bargaining can happen on a more even playing field."


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