Ernesto Rodarte, a foreign worker from Mexico, says he and other Mexican workers are being exploited by employers even though Calgary is in the middle of a major labour shortage. Rodarte came to Canada in March to work for Bridge Brand Food Services as an overnight warehouse worker. He describes the company as a "slavedriver" that takes advantage of workers from other countries who are here trying to earn some money for their families. He says he was fired because he refused to work on a day off, missed a mandatory meeting that was scheduled on a day off and because he once called in sick after his shift was supposed to start.
Rodarte makes a number of claims about his former employer's employment practices. He says his contract specified that he would only be required to work 40 hours a week and eight hours each day. However, he says the company regularly scheduled workers for 10-hour shifts and then asked them to stay for another two or three hours each night. "They were pushing so hard for us to stay an extra couple of hours," he says. "It's very physically demanding. At the end of the day you want time to rest and recover."
He says he was regularly asked to work on his two scheduled days off, and that even if he refused, his name would appear on a schedule. Rodarte also claims that a supervisor threatened to fire him and other foreign workers if they didn't meet "impossible" productivity quotas each day. "He told us he was going to let us go unless we got those numbers," says Rodarte.
He says the company didn't report injuries to the worker's compensation board and that he was injured three times, though none of the injuries were reported. In one instance, Rodarte says he twisted his ankle and was limping. "I asked them, 'Am I supposed to work like this?' and they said, 'yes.'" When he got home after the shift was over his ankle was severely swollen.
Rodarte had lived in an apartment provided by the company but says he was kicked out a week after being fired, even though he had paid the full month's rent. He shared the two-bedroom apartment with three other workers.
He says he's speaking out because he doesn't want other employers to get away with exploiting foreign workers. "They feel they can exploit everybody because we're foreign, from Mexico. They have the impression we are very ignorant and know nothing," he says, adding that that attitude leaves "a bad taste in my mouth. Not a lot of people stand up for themselves, because they feel frightened they might end up losing their jobs. Most of them have families and they need that income to support their families."
Rodarte has filed a complaint against the company with the Alberta government and is considering filing a human rights claim.
Tim Sinclair, director of human relations at Bridge Brand Food Services, says "all of the allegations are false." He says the company can't comment on Rodarte's claims because "we don't discuss individual performance issues outside the organization." However, he says the company has never asked an injured worker to continue working, and it regularly files injury reports. He adds that no worker is forced to work overtime or to work on days off. "All of our time is voluntary," he says.
Sinclair says the company in no way exploits foreign workers. "We know that our people, everyone of our people, are really our competitive advantage. We treat everyone equally. There's nobody treated differently from myself down," he says.
Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL), says he's heard many stories similar to Rodarte's in the last few months. The AFN recently opened an office to help foreign workers and has already dealt with 100 different cases.
"I'm certainly not going to suggest that every employer who uses temporary foreign workers takes advantage of them, but there's certainly a significant minority of unscrupulous employers who do take advantage of (foreign workers') vulnerability to force workers to do things that are both illegal and dangerous," says McGowan. He says complaints range from foreign workers not getting paid what they were promised to workers being forced to do dangerous jobs without proper training or safety equipment.
Although temporary foreign workers are supposed to be protected by the same Employment Standards Code as all other Alberta workers, McGowan says that's not happening. McGowan would like to see the government conduct unannounced workplace inspections of companies employing foreign workers. He says the current system relies on foreign workers making complaints before there's any investigation. "The provincial government is relying on vulnerable and often scared temporary foreign workers to make complaints in a system they don't understand and often in a language that's new to them," says McGowan, adding that foreign workers often won't complain about employers because they have to make money to send home to their families and can't risk being deported.
"The employers know the workers are going to be very unlikely to complain, and they also know no one is watching them, so they end up trying to get away with practices that are outrageous."
Another issue the AFN is hearing complaints about is recruiters charging temporary foreign workers fees to get them jobs in Canada. Rodarte was charged $1,000 by a Calgary broker, and he says many other Mexican workers have paid the same fee. "We knew that money was going into his pocket, but you don't know how to come to Canada. Even though he's robbing you, you need this guy," he says.
McGowan says the government should also be going after such employment brokers more aggressively to ensure worker rights.
Terry Jorden, spokesperson for Alberta Employment, Immigration and Industry, says employment standards investigators are currently looking into Rodarte's complaint against his employer. "The Alberta government is grateful for workers like this coming forward with problems. We realize how difficult it is for temporary foreign workers to make the complaint, to figure out which government department handles these sorts of things and no doubt they have a certain amount of fear they may lose their jobs," he says.
Jorden says a couple of weeks ago the provincial and federal governments signed an agreement to share information on temporary foreign workers, which now allows the province to find out where temporary foreign workers are employed. "With that information we'll be better equipped to respond," he says.
Jorden couldn't comment on whether the government will start doing unannounced inspections, but he says the government is concerned about any exploitation of foreign workers. "Temporary foreign workers make up a fraction of one per cent of our workforce. However, these kinds of problems that are coming up can really damage Alberta's reputation around the world, and so although the numbers are small, we take them very seriously, and we're trying reduce and eliminate the occurrence," he says. He also says it is illegal for recruiters to charge employees to get them a job and he says the government investigates such complaints.
Fast Forward Weekly, Page 10, Thurs Aug 16 2007
Byline: Amy Steele
The announcement of $40 billion worth of new energy industry projects in the past two weeks, including Shell Canada's plans to spend $27 billion to construct a massive oilsands processing unit at its Scotford upgrader near Edmonton, has refocused attention on the province's ongoing labour crunch.
All told, oilsands projects worth more than $130 billion are planned for the next 20 years -- and billions more will be spent on energy-related projects across the province over the same time period. That has Albertans asking: where will the workers come from?
Last month, the Alberta government warned the province is facing a shortfall of 100,000 workers by 2015, with at least 40,000 of those positions in the oil and gas sector. Energy contributes about a third, more than $59 billion annually, to Alberta's gross domestic product.
"Our top three priorities are people, people and more people," said Shell Canada spokeswoman Janet Annesley, acknowledging the dilemma. "Ensuring we have access to skilled people is our top concern."
Shell's new upgrader is the cornerstone of a made-in-Canada strategy that will see it process virtually all of its oilsands in Alberta -- about 10 per cent of the country's projected output -- from the mine to the gas tank. The facility is to be built in four stages over the next 15 to 20 years, with each phase requiring 5,000 construction workers over and above the 1,200 personnel needed to run the plant.
Likewise, Petro-Canada is refitting its Edmonton refinery to take a steady diet from the Fort Hills mine, which is currently under construction near booming Fort McMurray. Costs to complete the project have risen steadily.
"The impact of labour shortages is very real. To keep up with the pace of economic growth and capitalize on key projects in the oilsands, industry needs to take the lead and tackle this issue," Andrew Stephens, a Petro-Canada vice-president, said in response to the unveiling of a new government program to recruit and train new workers.
According to a report by Deloitte and Touche, the oil industry is partly a victim of its own success, pulling talent and manpower from other sectors of the economy that support it.
"It's not just in the oilsands areas," said Dick Cooper, Deloitte's energy and resources practice leader, who is based in Calgary.
"It's in the whole economy . . . whether it's the Tim Hortons or new restaurant that can't find people to serve coffee and food because there's not enough people to keep the restaurants or coffee shops open."
In a report on future labour requirements, Cooper sees emerging demographic and educational trends contributing to the problem.
In addition to recruiting a younger generation of skilled workers, a greying bubble of baby boomers will retire, further straining a limited and shrinking talent pool.
"It's really causing a crunch in terms of getting these projects done."
But oil companies remain cautiously optimistic they can find and train new staff.
Recently, Total SA, Europe's third-largest oil producer, said it expects logistic bottlenecks and hiring difficulties as it develops oilsands projects in Alberta.
Like Shell and Petro-Canada, Total is also seeking a homegrown solution to handle the processing of its growing production, including an oilsands upgrading plant to take up bitumen from Joslyn and Surmont.
In its second-quarter report earlier this week, Total said it plans to spend between $10 billion and $15 billion to expand in Canada.
"We will have logistic pressure," Robert Castaigne, the company's chief financial officer told analysts last week. "There will be more costs. I don't think it's anything we won't be able to solve."
But Shell's Annesley said her company has a leg up because of direct recruiting programs in Alberta's colleges and trade schools -- even Internet sites like Facebook -- that lure young people into the fold.
The problem is finding the right skills for the job, another major challenge in an education system also under stress.
A $7.5-million donation to the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) in Edmonton is being used to develop a program tailored exclusively for Shell and its operating processes. In addition, the company wants to raise the number of apprentices on job sites to increase training.
"That alone gives an indication of the importance we place on educating the workforce of the future," Annesley said. "In the oilsands, education is the key to having opportunity."
But Alberta's labour movement is deeply suspicious of any incursion into their traditional turf, saying it compromises worker safety and benefits.
In July, five separate construction unions voted to strike, the first such ballot in three decades. The results showed a rising discontent with the breakneck pace of oilsands development among the people charged with building it.
Although the unions haven't yet served strike notices, the threat of a walkout could arise Aug. 8 when the contractors are expected to come back with a counter-offer.
A union proposal put forth in July calls for 14.5 per cent wage increases over two years, barely above Alberta's nation-leading inflation rate of 6.5 per cent.
Another issue for unions are temporary foreign workers.
The skilled labour shortage is a global phenomenon, prompting companies to look overseas for employees.
Alberta Building Trades Council president Ron Harry likens it to a "runaway train." But others just call it union busting.
Gil McGowan, the president of the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL), fired off a letter to provincial authorities after the collapse of a pair of holding tanks at Canadian Natural Resources Ltd.'s Horizon mine site this spring, killing two Chinese workers and injuring four.
It was the second accident in a span of three weeks his organization blamed on inadequate safety standards and the use of unqualified staff.
"From our perspective, these events raise serious questions about construction practices and safety on the site," he said.
"If these temporary workers were on a track to becoming full citizens, it would be less of a concern. But they're not. The vast majority will be treated like Post-it notes -- to be used, discarded and sent back to the countries of origin."
The AFL also questions whether there is actually a labour crisis and what needs to be done to address it.
By the Alberta government's own definition, problems don't start developing in the labour market until the unemployment rate drops below 3.5 per cent.
According to Statistics Canada, Alberta currently has a 6.1 per cent unemployment rate in the construction trades.
McGowan said there are plenty of potential workers to be found in the Aboriginal communities as well as in Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
Rather than marginalize unions, the government needs to start looking at labour organizations as a potential source of training and for creating new opportunities, he said.
"Organized labour has to be part of the solution."
Calgary Herald, Page A1, Mon Aug 13 2007
Byline: Shaun Polczer
Oilpatch risks turn from value creation to value destruction; Comment; Everybody Wants A Bigger Cut Of The Booming Industry
For the first time in a generation, Alberta is facing a general strike within its construction trades that threatens to disrupt its booming oilsands industry and is introducing a new type of uncertainty --labour unrest.
It's an absurd situation. Alberta has such a severe labour shortage the worker is king. Construction workers, in particular, are among the highest paid, most job secure, most coddled in the world. For its part, the oil industry is earning lavish profits, suggesting it should have plenty of cash to keep labour content as it presses ahead with ambitious oilsands investments.
Underscoring this absurdity is the provincial context -- this is unfolding, after all, in redneck Alberta, where the union movement is about as cherished as the NDP and job action in the oil industry is a distant memory.
Yet five large construction unions have been given strike mandates by their members and can walk out at any time. Another two are getting close to that position. Some 30,000 workers could be involved. They are turning down pay increases that would make most Canadians cringe with envy: 24% over four years, topping up salaries that often exceed $100,000 a year. (A pipefitter or a welder earns basic pay of $44.91 an hour).
Unions know they have oil companies by the neck. The majority of construction workers are employed in projects in Fort McMurray or outside Edmonton related to the oilsands, where companies are under the gun to meet investor expectations while facing severe staff shortages as more projects ramp up.
Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, the largest union group in Alberta, said workers have the right to share in the sector's riches. Besides, he said, the 24% increase offered by the oil companies barely keeps up with the province's inflation.
"It's no secret to the workers in this province that the energy industry has been making record profits. Our question is, 'Why should all those profits go into the hands of managers and investors? Why shouldn't working people see a bigger share of that pie?' " he asked.
It's during boom times that workers get their biggest gains at the bargaining table when they have more leverage, he said.
"It's what business people would do, and I can't understand why anyone would expect working people to behave any differently."
Alberta's construction workers feel entitled to higher rates of pay because the majority work away from home, and rather than returning to their families at the end of the day they face life in a work camp or cramped apartment in Fort McMurray, he said.
The union group believes the solution to the labour crunch is for the provincial government to slow down the pace of oilsands growth, and if that causes companies to leave, then move to public development of the resource, along the lines of what Danny Williams is trying to do in Newfoundland.
Oil companies have big issues of their own: They are trying to contain costs that have trebled and quadrupled in the past few years and represent the biggest risk to oilsands projects. Labour accounts for about half those costs.
They believe they are paying lavish salaries and that they are offering generous pay increases. They are worried Alberta's labour costs are so out of line they are eroding the attractiveness of the oilsands deposits. Meanwhile, labour's increased demands are happening just as a provincial royalty review could recommend at the end of this month a larger provincial take.
Frank Atkins, an economist at the University of Calgary who's been watching the standoff, said the stakes are so high for both sides a settlement is inevitable.
"Those guys on the labour side, they want to work, but they have a legitimate beef. Inflation is biting into them," he said. "What they needed to do is flex their muscle to get the attention, and they did. I don't think you are going to see tremendous wage gains. The companies have a cost problem, and so they want to maintain their costs as low as they can. They are stuck with this expensive labour, they know they need it, they got billions poured into this."
Still, the threat is so serious it's resulted in an overhang in the market on oilsands stocks.
Companies like EnCana Corp., Husky Energy Inc. and Marathon Oil Corp. are pushing projects that could have been done in Alberta south of the border. Marathon, which last week purchased oilsands producer Western Oil Sands Inc., said it can retool its refinery in Detroit to upgrade Canadian heavy crude at about a third of the price of building an upgrader in Alberta.
Some are quietly beefing up their complement of foreign workers.
As the two sides resume bargaining this week, they may want to consider a reality check close to home. The natural gas business in Western Canada has been in recession for about 18 months, destroyed by excessive costs, while its competition in the United States is merrily drilling at a record pace. The finger pointing about who and what killed that boom is still under way.
At some point, the economically fragile oilsands will turn the corner from value creation to value destruction as more and more stakeholders demand a bigger piece. As one executive put it, we're at risk of turning this great resource into a General Motors.
National Post, Page FP3, Tues Aug 7 2007
Byline: Claudia Cattaneo
Horizon faces test if oilsands strike; Project On Schedule; Questions Remain Whether Canadian Natural Immune
CALGARY - A controversial labour strategy used by Canadian Natural Resource Ltd. to build its oilsands mega-project could be put to the test later this month if 30,000-plus unionized construction workers in Alberta decide to go on strike.
The Calgary-based company said yesterday the first phase of its $7-billion Horizon project, at which the workforce has peaked at 7,000, is 75% complete and virtually on budget and schedule as it approaches a startup date some time in next year's third quarter.
Questions remain, however, about whether Horizon is really insulated from a looming job action that appears to be gaining momentum among seven unionized building trades in Alberta.
The provincial government granted the project a rarely used status in 2004 under its labour code called Division 8, which Canadian Natural president Steve Laut said yesterday makes it illegal for employees at the site to strike, just as it would be illegal for Canadian Natural to lock workers out.
The status also let Canadian Natural negotiate a blanket agreement with a single union -- the Christian Labour Association of Canada, which Alberta unions see as pro-business -- that binds workers on the site, including those from other Alberta-based unions, for the duration of construction.
Six unions last year challenged the decision to grant that special status but there has been no final ruling, creating a state of limbo that could put some unionized workers at Horizon in a quandary, should a strike be called.
They won't know if it is legal or illegal to walk off the job, even as fellow union members not working at Horizon take job action across the province.
Such a scenario would quickly lead to picket lines forming at the gates of Horizon, so those workers won't have to make a choice, said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.
"If Canadian Natural wants to tell investors it's protected from a strike, then the company is dreaming in technicolour," Mr. McGowan said. "The question around Division 8 hasn't been answered by the labour relations board and if that state remains and a strike occurs, there's a good chance you'll see picket lines at the Horizon gates."
Mr. Laut would not say exactly how many workers at the Horizon site fall within one of the unions threatening job action, but labour leaders estimate the total could run as high as 1,000.
Mr. Laut said the number is much smaller.
Support for a strike among construction trades that are critical to all oilsands projects -- and to major construction projects across the province -- is snowballing, said Barry Salmon, spokesman for a group of five building construction trades that last month overwhelmingly voted in favour of walking off the job.
The group, which includes about 6,000 electricians and another 19,000 boilermakers, millwrights, plumbers and refrigeration mechanics, has been without a contract since May.
Alberta's 7,000 unionized labourers and 6,500 carpenters have also now received permission to hold a strike vote, which will occur on Aug. 15, Mr. Salmon said.
Workers are looking for wage hikes and for protection from the rising cost of living in Alberta, hoping for a two-year contract rather than a four-year deal. Electricians last Friday turned down a contract for a wage hike of 24% between 2007 and 2011.
Talks with the associations that negotiate on behalf of independent contractors were to occur this week but were pushed back, angering several of the unions, Mr. Salmon said. "The earliest a 72-hour strike notice could be served would be Aug. 20, because we're waiting for the boilermakers to re-do their vote because of an internal technical issue with the way the first vote [on July 4] took place," he said.
Canadian Natural reported lower profits in the second quarter but lifted its production outlook for the remainder of the year.
Net income in the quarter fell to $841-million, from $1.04-billion last year, when earnings were inflated by a $438-million gain on tax changes.
National Post, Page FP1, Fri Aug 3 2007
Byline: Jon Harding
EDMONTON (CP) _ Striking workers at a century-old Molson Canada brewery will continue to picket despite the company's decision to shut the plant down, say union officials.
''The closure is for Aug. 31, so we're still going to keep the line and hopefully get more support,'' Garth Sanderson, president of Canadian Auto Workers Local 284, said Wednesday.
A total of 136 employees, 102 of them unionized, will lose their jobs. Many had tears in their eyes as they emerged from a meeting with company officials at a hotel where they talked about severance packages.
''There was a lot of venting because it's a shock,'' said Doug Smith, 50, who has spent 29 years with the company.
''We got nothing out of that meeting. It's all got to be negotiated with the union. We basically got no answers,'' said the burly man, his eyes moistening as he considered a lengthy career that's suddenly come crashing down around him.
Tully Lutz, 38, has worked at the Edmonton plant since 1991. He said there's a ''poison'' moving through corporate North America that is forcing lower wages on working people.
''People are going to be working for way less money down the road and not being able to live. All these guys are going to sit up in their mansions and play little Monopoly games with people. It's crazy,'' he said.
Relations with employees began to deteriorate, Tully said, after Montreal's Molson Inc. merged in 2005 with Adolph Coors Co. Molson Canada is now part of the Molson Coors Brewing Co. (TSX:TAP.B) based in Golden, Colo.
Daniel Pelland, the company's chief brewing officer, acknowledged it was a tough decision to close the plant and even tougher meeting with workers.
''There are a lot of questions about 'what's going to happen to me?' and 'I've been 30 years with the company' so we said: 'Look, those are the questions we need answered,''' he said.
It's now up to the union to negotiate details of severance agreements on behalf of the workers, Pelland said _ something he hoped would start as soon as possible.
Union officials said they are seeking legal advice on how to proceed with negotiations.
The Alberta Federation of Labour issued a statement in support of the workers.
''The American-based Coors Molson Co. is closing a profitable, efficient, award-winning plant with no consideration of long-term employees here in Alberta,'' said federation president Gil McGowan.
''So next time Albertans hear the ''I am Canadian' rant on a Molson ad, don't believe it. With the layoff of the last Alberta Molson workers, there is little reason for Albertans to drink Molson products.''
The company blamed the closure partly on the loss of a contract earlier this year with Foster's Group Ltd., a move that resulted in Molson Coors taking a US$24.6-million charge.
Another reason was a growing consumer preference for cans over bottles, said Pelland. The Edmonton brewery produced only the latter.
In Canada, about 65 per cent of the company's suds end up in bottles and 25 per cent in cans, but consumers are increasing the demand for canned brew _ especially in Western Canada, he said.
An impasse in contract talks with the union local in Edmonton and higher freight costs at the city's bottling plant also factored into the company's decision, Pelland said. Union members walked off the job May 30.
''It's always the balance about the location, freight and costs.''
Pelland said the company is not sending a message to the rest of its estimated 3,000 workers across Canada.
''We got some good relations with our other unions and we need to work with them to develop our plans to move forward,'' he said.
Foster's cancelled its contract with Molson Coors in May, saying demand in the U.S. market had plunged 33 per cent between 2001 and 2006.
SABMiller plc is replacing Molson Coors as the brewer of Foster's under a 10-year licence agreement starting in November.
Earlier this year, Molson Coors CEO Leo Kiely said cost-cutting efforts and synergies after the merger of Molson and Coors were expected to yield savings of $175 million in 2008.
Canadian Press Newswire, Wed Aug 1 2007
Byline: Lisa Arrowsmith
The biggest surprise coming out of the provincial Oil Sands Consultation - Multistakeholder Committee Final Report is that the diverse panel reached consensus on 96 of the 120 recommendations.
"There were very strong levels of agreement," said Greg Stringham, vice-president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP). Recalling that industry held just three of the 19 panel seats, the amount of agreement was a surprise because there was such an expectation of disagreement. "I think everybody saw there were real issues here," he noted.
The report was initiated by the province in 2005 to clarify and update policies that guide and regulate oilsands development.
No consensus was reached on 24 issues including the pace of development though Stringham said it was more to do with the moratorium. "It was the question of shutting things down that people couldn't come to consensus on. That one didn't surprise me," he added.
Mayor Melissa Blake, who has repeatedly asked for a slowing of development and a moratorium on approvals to allow the municipality time to catch-up on infrastructure concerns was not available for comment. Similarly, Wood Buffalo regional manager Bill Newell had not yet reviewed the final report and was unable to comment this morning.
For the report, the committee held a two-phase series of public meetings across Alberta including a community summit in the Fort McMurray region. Common themes were the pace of development including calls for a moratorium, capturing more value-added industry, stronger government leadership and, especially in the Fort McMurray area, a view the infrastructure and service deficits require urgent attention.
The need for environmental protection and conservation was a concern the panel heard at all public meetings.
On the leadership issue, Stringham said "I think (the provincial government) still needs to do more but they've actually really taken a big step forward." He cited the length of the process, the previous Doug Radke Report and the provincial government's infusion of several hundred million dollars into infrastructure as examples.
"Now that's certainly not going to solve the entire issue. We know there's more demand there but it shows, I think, the government is getting more involved," he added.
Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, made two presentations during the public consultation process. He wasn't surprised by the non-consensus.
"We're not much further ahead than we were six months ago. There's still a glaring lack of leadership on the issues that matter," he said.
McGowan added it's becoming more clear that while the government is happy to hold consultations, it's still on the sidelines when it comes to significant concerns such as the "burning issue" of pace of development.
Increased communication about initiatives already underway in the industry is another issue outlined in the report, according to Stringham. He noted there are some people who believe no land reclamation has occurred "yet there's a significant amount of reclamation." He said this report tries to narrow "those kinds of gaps in knowledge."
Stringham added it will take industry, government and environmental groups working together to completely close the gaps.
Fort McMurray Today, Page A1, Thurs July 26 2007
Byline: Carol Christian
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
Oilsands construction unions vote to strike; 'Historic' walkout as early as next week would be first under tough Alberta law
CALGARY -- Five oilsands construction unions have voted overwhelmingly to strike, in a move that could halt work at oil-sands projects in Fort McMurray, Alta., as early as next week.
The results of the July 4 votes were presented to the Alberta Labour Relations board on Monday. Once certified, 72-hour strike notice could be served as early as Friday, said Barry Salmon, a spokesman for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 424, based in Edmonton.
"These are rather overwhelming mandates," he said. "Historic is a word that's used far too often, but that's what this is -- historic."
The five unions -- boilermakers, plumbers and pipe fitters, electrical workers, millwrights and refrigerator mechanics - held simultaneous ballots in Calgary, Edmonton and Fort McMurray earlier this month, the first such votes in almost three decades.
The electrical workers voted 94 per cent in favour of strike action, while the boilermakers and plumbers voted 99 per cent and 97 per cent, respectively, in favour. Millwrights were 90-per- cent supportive, while refrigeration mechanics came in at 85 per cent.
At issue are quality-of-life issues as opposed to wages, Salmon said. Journeyman electricians make about $35 an hour, for example.
"It just shows the level of frustration among trades," Salmon said. "We want a contract, not a strike. This is all about getting back to the table."
In addition to oilsands projects, a walkout could threaten big public-works projects that use union labour.
The unions have been without a contract since May 1. Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan described the votes as "unprecedented," in light of the province's existing labour law, which critics have complained is overwhelmingly biased in favour of contractors.
Consequently, there have been no strike votes under the legislation since it was enacted in the early 1980s.
"Alberta's labour code was deliberately written to make it impossible for construction unions to go on strike," McGowan said. "These workers are sending a very strong message, and employers ignore it at their peril."
Mark Friesen, an oilsands analyst at FirstEnergy Capital Corp., said the labour unrest is another layer of ambiguity in an oilpatch already grappling with a government-sponsored royalty review and skyrocketing capital costs.
He's not surprised the unions would vote in favour of walking off the job. However, he held out hope strike action could be averted.
Vancouver Sun, Page D9, Tues July 24 2007
Byline: Shaun Polczer
How smart are the suits at silly hall? Just wise enough to play stupid! In the ambulance labour war it's really all the pinstripes have to do.
The suits of silly hall are often silly, but not as often stupid.
They know they don't have to actually negotiate with our world-class paramedics any more than they wish. And they don't.
They know the game, they know the rules and they know the city can't lose, no matter how boneheaded they act.
In fact, they can take a make-believe stand with the paramedics and spin a story about how they're holding the line and cast themselves as principled, fearless guardians of the public purse.
But it's all sizzle and no steak.
The city acts as it does because they know how all the cards will be dealt.
They play their role, they know the paramedics won't suck it up and take chump change in a hotly inflated economy. They know the paramedics will come to the end of the road and vote for a strike.
But it's a strike vote for a strike existing only in theory, but not in practice.
The union takes the vote, will give strike notice and the province will step into the fray, declare an emergency and everything stops with the hit of the Easy Button. The province names an arbitrator who imposes a deal.
And what happens if the provincially appointed arbitrator hands down something better and therefore costlier than the city offers, as is very likely?
The city pinstripes will just shrug their shoulders. Oh well, it's not our fault the paramedics get what they're getting, it's the arbitrator's fault, the all-powerful one named by the province.
And, here's the best part, since it's the provincial arbitrator's fault ... golly gee, turn pockets inside out here ... we need more money to pay the paramedics. We don't have the cash in our budget. Oh me, oh my, the province will have to pony up the loonies.
Dear us, dear us, this is all so out of our control. Victim, victim.
Of course, the province could do the washing-of-hands routine and let the strike go ahead but, if anything happens, if some poor soul dies and somebody kicks up a stink about the response time of the ambulance or the quality of the crew, the city can say, yes this is beautiful, it's the province's fault because they could have declared an emergency.
And, the logic is so stunning, the city cooks up some phony baloney back-up service, a Plan B the province can't possibly accept.
With a normal level of ambulances on duty and lots of calls and units tied up at overcrowded hospitals there are yellow alerts.
With sub-par service ...
"They will have yellow alerts and red alerts in the first hour," says Bruce Robb, the paramedic union president who has been the definition of mild-mannered throughout this city's version of water torture.
The headline writers would be working overtime.
But, of course, it's not happening. The province won't hitch their wagon to some Band-Aid solution.
Just to make sure the public is completely spun into senselessness and confusion, AFTER the paramedics vote 354-4 for a strike, the city then offers last-minute voluntary arbitration as if to say, gee willakers, we tried our darndest to stop a strike.
Of course, they only offer this ersatz olive branch once the paramedics already decide on their final stand.
So strike notice could be as early as Monday. Sometime in the 72 hours following the notice the province will force the paramedics to stay on the job and both sides will go to binding arbitration.
Bruce and his people know the script as well as anybody.
It is all more than a bit surreal. Gil McGowan of the Alberta Federation of Labour paints the picture in a letter to Iris Evans, the province's minister responsible for labour.
"If the City of Calgary is assured you will instantly step in to prohibit strike action by the paramedics, they have little reason to alter bargaining to a more realistic position since they will not be facing any consequences."
And does the city care if our world-class paramedics are unhappy, a fact sure to be reflected in how many stay on in a boom economy with high inflation? Does the city really wonder why their mouthpieces couldn't bring two sides in a marble game together? No worries. The city can always pass the buck. And do.
At least, the paramedics are allowed to vent in a vote.
"It's important our members get to say how angry they are," says Bruce.
Hopefully, at least the soon-to-be-appointed arbitrator will be listening.
The Calgary Sun, Page 5, Sat July 21 2007
Byline: Rick Bell
The city's paramedics are moving ahead with strike preparations after again rejecting an offer to enter into binding arbitration to settle their contract dispute.
And while they won't be specific about when strike notice will be given, only allowing that it will be sometime next week, an information picket is planned for Monday.
"It's just to shed some light on what our issues are, clear up any misconceptions that might be out there," paramedics spokeswoman Rina Campus said.
Without a contract for more than a year, the paramedics have taken a strike vote and rejected overtures from the city to enter into binding arbitration.
EMS staff this week voted 99 per cent in favour of walking off the job. Unlike police and fire, which are considered essential services, paramedics can go on strike.
However, the province has indicated it will step in and halt any strike action, either by putting in place a disputes inquiry board or an emergency resolution tribunal. It can't act until the union issues the required 72-hour notice.
That won't happen until sometime next week, Campus said, adding the union is still working out some details.
"We're trying to get all our logistics for a strike organized," she said.
The Alberta Federation of Labour has also jumped into the debate, asking the province to leave well enough alone and not interfere with the bargaining process.
President Gil McGowan said in a news release the right to strike is the only way workers can gain a fair contract. If the province does halt strike action, the AFL will scrutinize any deal to make sure it takes into account Calgary's labour market conditions and cost-of-living increases, he said.
Campus said the 440 people employed by EMS "just want a fair contract, whether that's by going out on strike or binding arbitration."
She added that although it seems unlikely they will ever hoist a strike sign, paramedics are willing to take that step.
"Ninety-nine per cent of us are willing to walk out of our jobs and not get paid," she said. "People are willing to do whatever means necessary to get the contract we want."
City spokeswoman Vickie Megrath said they were officially notified Friday that the union won't enter into binding arbitration to settle the lone remaining issue -- money.
"We have to see what the union is going to do next," she said. "We'll continue with our contingency plans and continue to be available to continue discussions."
The city has offered paramedics 12 per cent over three years. The paramedics want 18 per cent, plus a retroactive market adjustment they feel is necessary to bring salaries in line with other city employees.
The union says an EMT makes $21.96 an hour to start, with a top wage of $26.70 an hour. The hourly wages for paramedics range from $23.74 to $30.26, while crew chiefs make $30.26 to $33.54.
Calgary paramedics last went on strike in 1991.
Calgary Herald, Page B2, Sat July 21 2007
Byline: Kim Guttormson