McGowan: Trades workers under attack

Labour Day is a holiday to honour the contributions that workers make every day to the economy and the communities in which they live. It's supposed to be a day when working people can put down their tools, spend time with their families and take satisfaction in what they've built.

Unfortunately, this Labour Day, instead of honouring the people who build and maintain our province's economic engine, the Alberta Conservatives are considering new ways to give them the shaft.

In particular, Employment Minister Thomas Lukaszuk, is - yet again - rolling out the welcome mat for an industry group that wants the government's help to lower wages for working Albertans. Last time around, it was the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association that lobbied Lukaszuk for a lower minimum wage for workers who serve alcohol.

This time, it's an association of non-union construction firms. Calling themselves the Construction Competitiveness Coalition, they've asked Lukaszuk for changes to the provincial labour code that would make it difficult for unions to represent skilled tradespeople working on oilsands-related construction projects.

The motives of the coalition are clearly suspect. If they succeed in getting the changes they want, it would give non-union contractors an upper hand in bidding wars with unionized contractors (who, despite higher wages and benefits, continue to get half the work on Alberta's big industrial construction projects).

What the non-union lobby group is really asking the Tories to do is to use their legislative power to help one group of employers corner the market on industrial construction projects at the expense of another group of employers. They're also trying to transform the construction labour market so that skilled tradespeople have no choice but to work for non-union companies, even if those workers don't like the way the non-union firms deal with things like wages, benefits and safety.

Coalition spokesman Stephen Kushner says that Alberta needs to weaken unions because the province is "becoming known as a high-cost jurisdiction" and that this reputation is driving away investment. He even suggested that unions are to blame for the fact that 12 upgrader projects have been shelved.

These are what I call "snake-oil arguments": arguments that sound plausible on one level, but which rely on half-truths and leaps of logic.

It's true, for example, that costs are high in the oilsands. But union wages are not the problem. In fact, the recent agreement negotiated between unions and unionized construction firms provides exactly the kind of longer-term cost certainty that developers have been asking for.

The real challenges lie elsewhere. As a recent report from the consulting firm KPMG points out, costs are going up in the oilsands for several reasons, including increased costs for building materials like steel and cement; delays in engineering and project management; and the cost pressures that come with having too many major projects on the go at one time.

Most importantly, KPMG pointed out the obvious: the oilsands are expensive because it's hard to wring oil out of sand, especially in remote locations and in an inhospitable climate.

The suggestion that union wages caused upgrader projects to be shelved is equally ludicrous. Those projects were postponed because of falling oil prices during the global recession and they were mothballed for good because the Alberta government switched from promoting Alberta-based upgrading to acting as a cheerleader for mega-pipelines like the controversial Keystone XL, which make it more attractive to upgrade south of the border than in Alberta.

In the end, it can be argued that Alberta is a high-cost jurisdiction. But it can't be honestly argued that unions are to blame.

Busting unions won't make steel any cheaper and it won't improve our weather.

What it will do is enrich the owners of non-union construction firms at the expense of the owners and workers at other firms.

For the sake of the thousands of Alberta tradespeople who help keep our economic engine running, let's hope that all of the Tory leadership contenders see the non-union lobby group's proposal for what it is: a load of self-serving clap trap.

Gil McGowan is president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.

Calgary Herald, Mon Sept 5 2011

Edmonton Journal, Mon Sept 5 2011
"Union-busting no way to mark Labour Day: Construction lobby group only concerned with itself, not Alberta's economic health"

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