The workers were in the Atlantic province after SNC-Lavalin awarded a contract to Balzac, Alta.-based Integral Energy Service to work on a natural gas storage tank at a liquid natural gas (LNG) receiving and regassification terminal in Saint John.
About 125 employees were sent to Saint John on a three month contract.
On Sept 14, after only a few days on the job, hundreds of angry protesters began to gather outside their hotel to demonstrate against the hiring of out of province workers.
"What happened is SNC-Lavalin hired some subcontractors and some of them are CLAC (Christian Labour Association of Canada) signatory companies," said CLAC director of public relations Alex Pannu.
"Out of that group of workers, who are supposedly from Alberta, quite a few are from Atlantic Canada, but previously worked in Alberta."
Canaport LNG Ltd., which is a partnership between Irving Oil and Repsol, made it clear that they aren't directly responsible for the labour unrest.
"The labour issue is directly between our contractor SNC-SNAM (a partnership between SNC-Lavalin and Italian-based Snamprojetty) and the local tradespeople," said Canaport LNG spokesperson Francisco Garcia-Tobar.
"It is an unfortunate situation and our primary focus is the completion of the construction of the Canaport LNG terminal."
It remains up to the union and the main contractor to find a resolution.
"At the outset of the Canaport LNG project, labour unions signed an agreement which allowed 25 per cent of the labour force to be non-unionized," said Gillian MacCormack spokesperson for SNC-Lavalin Inc.
"SNC-Lavalin is well within the terms of this agreement. To date, over 90 per cent of the labour force at Canaport LNG has been unionized."
About 1,600 workers were employed on the project during the peak of construction.
"These protests are not about keeping Albertans out of New Brunswick," said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour. "They are about stopping CLAC from getting a toehold in a province, where they are not recognized as a legitimate trade union."
Despite this claim, Pannu denied that CLAC is planning to move into New Brunswick.
"We have our hands full, especially with our work right now in Saskatchewan," he said. "If we have increased our presence in Atlantic Canada, it is because our members have asked us to come there."
According to Pannu, the building trades are spinning the whole thing about local workers not being employed and turning it into an attack on CLAC.
"The issue is SNC-Lavalin decided to subcontract to an Alberta-based company that sent out their workers," he said. "If the protestors have an issue, they need to sit down with the contractor and the union leaders, instead of holding their fellow workers hostage."
Garcia-Tobar said Canport LNG has encouraged SNC-Lavalin to use local construction companies as much as reasonably possible for the last four years.
"To achieve this goal, site construction was divided into smaller packages to give local contractors an opportunity to bid," he said. "As the project wraps up, with the completion of the third LNG tank, smaller packages such as the one at the origin of the current protests, were put to tender giving ample opportunity for competitive bids."
The protests lasted for about four days and took place each morning and afternoon. Despite a 24-hour injunction issued on Sept. 16, about 350 protesters showed up at the hotel the next morning.
Police didn't intervene.
On Sept. 17, the protesters were given a court order to stay at least 100 metres away from the hotel and were advised to stop preventing guests from going to work.Protesters cheered when a bus full of workers, fearing for their safety, left the hotel.
The judge also granted a temporary injunction to SNC-Lavalin, ordering protesters to stay away from the entrance to Canaport LNG, as well as hotels and motels in Saint John, Moncton and Fredericton.
Initially, the worker's whereabouts was unknown, but it now appears they went back to Alberta until things cool down.
Integral Energy is planning to have their staff return to New Brunswick to finish the job.
Representatives of the New Brunswick Federation of Labour, the New Brunswick Building Trades Council, the Electrical Contractors Association of New Brunswick and the St John Construction Association were contacted for this story but refused to comment.
Journal of Commerce, Tues Sept 22 2009
Byline: Richard Gilbert