Real Issue is union-busting, not racism

When it comes to public debates, one of the oldest tricks in the book is to attack your opponent's character and question his motives.

If you can successfully paint the other guy as a villain, then people are less likely to hear his arguments - let alone be swayed by them.

That, unfortunately, is what has been happening as more and more Albertans join the debate over the use of temporary foreign workers in our province's oil patch.

Last week, for example, former Calgary Mayor Al Duerr weighed in with a guest column in which he accused union leaders of making comments with "racist overtones."

In particular, he argued that one of the main reasons unions oppose a plan by Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. to employ hundreds of temporary foreign workers on it's huge Horizon project near Fort McMurray is because those workers are Chinese.

Aside from being entirely offensive, Duerr's comments - and the comments made by other observers who have attempted to paint Alberta unions with a racist brush - are simply wrong.

Alberta unions are pro-immigration and vehemently opposed to racism. Like most other Canadians, we value diversity and actively promote tolerance in the workplace and the broader community.

We also recognize that Canada is a country built by immigrants. We even support changes to our immigration system that would give a higher priority to immigrants with backgrounds in the construction trades.

As a labour leader, I am proud of the strong and well-documented leadership role that Canadian unions have taken in the fight against racism.

So why, if unions are so supportive of immigration, are we opposed to the use of temporary foreign workers on CNRL's Horizon site?

The short answer is that our beef is not with individual temporary foreign worker, no matter where they come from.

What we're really opposed to are the union-busting labour relations practices adopted by one company - Canadian Natural Resources Limited.

From our perspective, ever since it was granted approval to develop the Horizon site, CNRL has been trying to find ways to build its project without having to work with Alberta's traditional building trades unions.

This goal was clearly laid out in company documents filed with the provincial government and in at least one internal company memo that was leaked to our office.

Of course, there is no law saying that a company has to work with unionized contractors. However, there are laws saying that construction jobs must first be offered to Canadian workers - including unionized Canadian workers - before they are filled by temporary foreign workers.

That's the problem. CNRL may indeed have exhausted the pool of available non-union construction workers. But instead of biting the bullet and offering work to unionized contractors working under existing collective agreements, they have gone straight to the option of temporary foreign workers.

In essence, company managers are crying "labour shortage" while intentionally ignoring a viable and experienced pool of qualified workers - union workers - right in front them.

One of the most frustrating aspects of this whole situation is that our provincial and federal governments seem to have bought into CNRL's approach.

By granting permits to CNRL and its contractors under the Foreign Temporary Worker program, they are actively helping CNRL bypass unionized Alberta contractors. In an important sense, they are aiding and abetting in a campaign to bust unions.

The obvious question that needs to be asked - and one which I think CNRL investors should be asking - is why the company is going to such lengths to avoid working under existing collective agreements.

Other oilsands developers - most notably the OPTI-Nexen consortium that is developing the Long Lake project near Fort McMurray - had originally joined CNRL in trying to build their project non-union.

But when they ran into a shortage of non-union labour that caused huge delays, they turned to the traditional unionized building trades. As a result, that project is now on time and on budget.

That's why all these arguments about "racist overtones" are so frustrating - they obscure the real debate.

Instead of trying to paint hard-working Alberta trades people as intolerant red necks, we should be asking if it's appropriate for our governments to be in the business of helping companies to bust unions.

The bottom line is that there is more than enough work to go around in Alberta's booming energy sector - and there is no good reason to exclude unionized tradespeople and the contractors they work with.

So let's put all these anti-union, Rambo-style management games aside - and get on with the business of building Alberta's future prosperity!

Calgary Herald, Sat July 8 2006, Page A20
By Gil McGowan, AFL President

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