CALGARY -- This may be the summer of unrest in the West, as thousands of municipal and forestry workers have walked off the job in British Columbia and thousands more tradespeople and paramedics in Alberta have voted to strike.
The labour disputes come amid red-hot economies in both provinces, which have driven up corporate profit and the cost of living along with it.
Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, said that nobody (employers especially) should be surprised by the demands for wage increases coming on the heels of almost two decades of recession, budget cuts and stagnant pay.
"Now we find ourselves in the boom, so workers are doing exactly what should be expected: They are trying to get their fair share of the growing economic pie," he said.
"If workers can't make substantial gains during economic boom times like we're currently enjoying in Alberta, when can they?"
Yesterday, the debt-free Alberta government moved to quash the discontent among Calgary's more than 400 emergency service workers, who pledged to hit the picket lines tomorrow after an overwhelming 99 per cent of members voted to strike.
Alberta Employment Minister Iris Evans said the cabinet declared a public emergency to avert the strike and will announce a tribunal to force both sides into an agreement.
The Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents paramedics, pointed out that its Calgary workers make less than their counterparts in Toronto, Ottawa and Winnipeg, where inflation is not nearly as pronounced.
Meanwhile, B.C.'s $2-billion-a-year coast forest sector is at a standstill as 7,000 logging and sawmilling workers represented by the United Steelworkers set up picket lines on the weekend.
The union and industry are dug in over several issues, including shift scheduling and contracting out.
Coast forest workers last went on strike for three weeks in 2003. An arbitrated settlement that took effect in 2004 gave employers, among other things, more leeway in assigning shifts.
Companies say they can't give up flexibility on that front, asserting that market conditions - including a soaring loonie and a limping U.S. housing market - have only worsened in the interim.
The union says that employers are putting workers' health and safety at risk and that industry has failed to live up to promises to reinvest in the sector.
Most observers expect that strike to last the summer.
At the same time, about 6,000 civic workers in Vancouver and North Vancouver began job action last week in their bid to seal a new contract. Library staff in Vancouver launched rotating job action yesterday while garbage piled up and public washrooms were left untended.
A major issue is the length of contracts. The city wants a 39-month deal to run through the 2010 Winter Olympics, but union officials prefer a contract that won't leave them to bargain in a potential post-Olympic environment of cost overruns and cuts.
Relief may be coming to the suburb of Richmond, B.C., where about 1,200 union members reached a tentative deal yesterday, which will be put to a vote tomorrow.
However, labour officials in Alberta also confirmed that a massive majority of electricians, millwrights, pipefitters, boilermakers and refrigeration mechanics, who are members of five unions primarily involved in oil sands and construction projects, have voted to walk off the job.
The historic strike vote - the first in a quarter-century under the province's restrictive labour legislation - is aimed at kick-starting negotiations for the 25,000 workers, said Barry Salmon, a spokesman for the unions.
Wages and "quality of life" issues, such as work-camp conditions and the long commute for workers to Fort McMurray in northern Alberta, are the key issues, Mr. Salmon said. So is the length of wage contracts during a boom with no end in sight.
"There are members that are hesitant about accepting a wage offer for the year 2011," Mr. Salmon said, "Traditionally, wage contracts have been two years. This one, all the contractors for all the unions offered four. ... What's the cost of living going to be in 2011?"
Already this month, Alberta's nurses signed on to a three-year deal that would make them the highest-paid workers in their job category in Canada.
The province offered wage increases of up to 9.1 per cent more next year as a way to compensate for the soaring cost of living as well as to help with recruitment and retention.
The Alberta Federation of Labour's Mr. McGowan said any wage increases under 6 per cent would be a decrease in real take-home pay.
"If you pay people, they will come," he said.
The Globe And Mail, Page A8, Wed July 25 2007
Byline: Dawn Walton