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
Edmonton Journal, Page B5, Sat July 21 2007
Byline: Kim Guttormson
CALGARY - Calgary's paramedics are moving ahead with what are likely futile strike preparations, after rejecting an offer to enter into binding arbitration with the city.
The union for 440 emergency medical personnel isn't saying when it will give its 72-hour strike notice, only allowing that it will be sometime next week.
"We're trying to get all our logistics for a strike organized," paramedics spokeswoman Rina Campus said Friday after the union rejected overtures from the city to enter into binding arbitration.
However, a strike isn't expected to happen.
The provincial government 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.
However, the province can't act until the union issues its strike notice.
The paramedics have been without a contract for more than a year. Earlier this week, they voted 99 per cent in favour of walking off the job.
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'll continue with our contingency plans and continue to be available to continue discussions," she said.
The Alberta Federation of Labour also jumped into the debate, asking the province not to 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.
The city has offered paramedics 12 per cent over three years. The paramedics want 18 per cent, plus a retroactive market adjustment they feels is necessary to bring salaries in line with other city employees.
The union said an EMT worker 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.
The temporary foreign worker program is perhaps the most contentious labour issue in the oilsands but a new provincial and federal government agreement is expected to clarify its parameters.
"We'll be able to share information and that'll hopefully help us be alerted to any abuses that could come forward," said Alberta Minister of Employment, Immigration and Industry Iris Evans. "I think you'll see a lot of the concerns that have been emerging addressed," she added, when the agreement is finished in November.
Monte Solberg, federal minister of human resources and social development Canada, said in an announcement the new agreement will include penalties for program abuse, such as refusing future requests for foreign workers. While there must be a "zero tolerance" for abuse and mistreatment, Solberg said "we need to recognize that temporary foreign workers must supplement Canadian labour, not displace it."
With the use of Chinese temporary workers predominant on the oilsands, training and qualifications remain top concerns, said Gil McGowan, Alberta Federation of Labour president.
Training is, he said, "One of the big questions we were asking after the deaths on the tank farm and it's a question we continue to ask: 'Are the workers being brought over from other countries trained up to standards that would be acceptable in Canada?' So far, we haven't been convinced." McGowan is referring to a tank collapse at the Canadian National Resources Ltd. site in April that killed two Chinese temporary workers.
McGowan said neither level of government has adequate screening mechanisms to properly evaluate qualifications.
He said federal bureaucrats have "essentially admitted to me that they only do paper audits on workers coming into the country under the temporary foreign worker program."
That may be acceptable with workers coming from countries with comparable standards to Canada's, but for workers coming from countries like China with lower standards, "Paper audits clearly won't be enough."
He's also concerned about a "loophole" in the practical testing of compulsory certified trades. Workers have up to six months to take the test but can work during that time.
"The paper audits and the loopholes that are being exploited by employment brokers make a mockery of our standards when it comes to training and health and safety," stated McGowan. "We're creating this underclass of workers who are much more vulnerable and much more open to exploitation."
It also discourages employers from investing in domestic training. McGowan asked why companies would invest in a domestic apprentice for four or five years, when they can get, for example, a journeyman right away through the temporary foreign worker program.
"The temporary worker program has been identified as one of the components to get through the human resources challenge," said Brian Maynard, human resources specialist and a vice-president for the Canadian Asociation of Petroleum Producers.
He noted a lot of people accuse the industry of trying to circumvent Alberta's labour movement by using temporary foreign workers.
While that could sometimes be the case, he acknowledged, it's "the most expensive solution we can find."
Costs for this "short-term solution" include such integration issues as moving, transportation, training and regulatory approvals. "It's a real challenge to integrate a temporary foreign worker," he said. Those costly challenges act as an "incentive for companies to hire locally," added Maynard.
MLA Hugh MacDonald, Liberal energy critic, wonders why, with nine other provinces and three territories, employers look overseas.
"Every rock and stone should be overturned looking for people here," he told Today. "I'm not convinced we're making enough of an effort." He added the unemployment rate among First Nations youth aged 15 to 24 is high.
"The last place we should be looking is the temporary foreign worker for exploitation," said MacDonald, adding the program is "designed to drive down Canadian wages and work conditions."
Last year, according to Evan's office, the top three countries suppying temporary foreign workers were the United States with 2,772, Philippines at 2,211 then the United Kingdom at 1,438. China ranks ninth out of the top 12 with 293. The U.S. is generally always the leading country. The year before it was the U.S., U.K. then Australia. The top three positions are babysitters/nannies, parents' helper at nine per cent; general farm workers at six per cent and processional occupations/business management at five per cent. Oilsands workers are not in the top 10. However, a group of "other occupations," which covers the remaining jobs not mentioned could include these workers. But because of the way the federal government collects the data, there's no way to break down this 68.6 per cent. There's also no way of knowing the top three countries supplying foreign workers to oilsands projects.
Fort McMurray Today, Page A1, Fri July 20 2007
Byline: Carol Christian
Alberta's booming economy, huge influx of workers and lack of safety training on some job sites are causing more workplace accidents among young employees, and too often costing them their lives, say labour advocates.
The Association of Workers' Compensation Boards of Canada states young workers are the most accident-prone in the country, with more than 50,700 workers under the age of 24 losing time from work after being injured in 2006.
Young people, who make up 17 per cent of Alberta's workforce, accounted for almost one-quarter of disabled injury claims in 2006, and those under 25 are 33 per cent more likely to be injured on the job than older workers.
The most recent stats show 51 workplace deaths among young workers across the country.
Most recently, on June 7, Rona employee Mitchell Tanner, 16, was killed after a forklift he was riding on flipped over and crushed him at a location near Edmonton.
Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan said that incident was unfortunately not isolated, as young people are more accident-prone on the job because of their inexperience and a lack of health and safety training provided to them.
"It's not a surprise, but the statistics underline the need for an aggressive commitment to health and safety training for young workers because they are the ones most likely to be injured," he said, adding the lack of training is significant in Alberta as it experiences an "unprecedented" influx of people under the age of 25.
Holly Heffernan, interim executive secretary for the Calgary and District Labour Council agreed the economic boom is partially to blame.
"They are coming on to the workforce and getting no orientation - they just give them a hammer and let them go," she said.
The Meridian Booster, Page A10, Fri July 18 2008
Byline: Katie Schneider
A new study released by the Alberta Federation of Labour says the Trade Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement (TILMA) will dumb down trade qualifications. The study claims the agreement opens the door to "watered-down trade qualifications" of Alberta workers to meet lower B.C. standards.
"We see this as a TILMA-triggered race to the bottom in the areas of professional and skilled labour qualifications," said Gil McGowan, federation president. "It's clear this isn't really a deal about trade or investment. It's setting the stage for dumbing down ... getting the job done with lesser qualified employees."
The implications of this should concern everyone, he said. He wondered "do you really want your homes to be built by someone with lower qualifications?"
The federation is sending copies of the study to all Alberta MLAs and asking the province to rescind the legislation.
McGowan pointed out there is an intent in TILMA to harmonize requirements for 50 Alberta occupations, mostly in the construction industry, currently exempt from TILMA because of higher standards. He's skeptical of the outcome, saying it will be a harmonizing down rather than up to the higher Alberta standards.
"That's bad news for both workers and the public," he added. "We should always be pushing for the highest possible occupation requirements, no matter which province they come from," he said.
"The last time I checked, there were no border guards stopping people or goods going between the two provinces," said McGowan. "We question the entire rationale (for TILMA). There already is free trade between the two provinces."
Danielle Smith, the director of provincial affairs in Alberta for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, says she didn't see anything in the agreement that Alberta standards are going to erode.
"I don't believe any government is going to allow that kind of erosion because public support isn't going to be behind them for it," she observed.
Smith noted the real agenda here is to protect the local labour market.
"When the unions are able to restrict the number of people who can come into this market then it creates shortages and it bids up wages," she said.
Someone who's a certified funeral director, for example, in B.C., should be able to move seamlessly into the same career here. "If there are barriers in the way that are preventing that, I think the government has an obligation and a duty to strip those down and I think that's what workers want," said Smith.
Saying the agreement is to ease trade and labour movement between the two provinces, she cited truckers hauling hay who had to stop at the B.C.-Alberta border to reload to meet some new rules in B.C. "Those are the kinds of silly things they're trying to sweep out of the way," said Smith.
The summary of the study, prepared by Steven Shrybman of the law firm Sack Goldblatt Mitchell in Ottawa, describes TILMA as "an instrument for de-regulation" with a corrosive influence on employment-related standards that will be weakened and undermined in both provinces. The study was also critical of the lack of public consultation and legislative debate in its creation. With the predicted impacts on many spheres of public policy and law, it concluded both provinces should reconsider their commitment to such a "draconian and unwarranted constraint on the exercise of public and democratically determined authority."
Fort McMurray Today, Page A3, Tues July 17 2007
Byline: Carol Christian
A union leader says the province has quietly lifted a stop work order imposed on an oilsands tank construction site in northern Alberta after two workers died.
Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, says officials in the Immigration Department told him about the development Thursday.
In a letter to Immigration Minister Iris Evans, McGowan says he believed the stop-work order would remain in place until the end of an investigation into what happened at the site near Fort McMurray.
McGowan wants to know whether the review into the deaths and a second non-fatal collapse three weeks later has been completed.
He has also written a letter to Justice Minister Ron Stevens asking for a public fatality inquiry into the deaths.
The Chinese men were working on the multibillion-dollar Horizon oilsands project belonging to Canadian Natural Resources (TSX:CNQ).
The Edmonton Sun, Page 33, Sat July 14 2007
Help may soon be on the way for the province's growing energy sector in the form of a collaborative approach addressing labour shortages.
A Workforce Strategy for Alberta's Energy Sector, developed by 37 energy associations, labour organizations and employers developed, was announced Tuesday. It contains 46 new actions to inform, attract and develop the workforce.
But while government and industry is heralding this strategy, labour unions are disappointed with the "business as usual" plan.
Alberta obviously needs an answer to the overall high demand for skilled and unskilled workers, according to Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.
"Yet we see nothing new in this document, nothing innovative. It's really business as usual after you get through the PR and promises to study various issues," said McGowan in a statement.
Describing the strategy as lacking in substance, he added it includes "vague intentions and promises."
The strategy was kick-started by the Alberta departments of Energy and Employment, Immigration and Industry, the Alberta Chamber of Resources and the Construction Owners Association of Alberta.
Brian Maynard, vice president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said 400,000 new jobs will be created in the province between now and 2015 but it leaves the province still 100,000 workers short.
Between 150,000 and 200,000 of the jobs will be in the oil and gas industry, he said.
''This is the biggest issue we face,'' he said. ''We can't do this without people.''
A highlight of the strategy includes a one-stop website about entering and working in the energy sector and living in Alberta to attract out-of-province workers, he said.
The purpose of the program is to develop ways to attract skilled workers to the whole industry through, for example, education and immigration, said Cheryl Knight, executive director and CEO of the Petroleum Human Resources Council of Canada.
''It's more proactive and long-term,'' she said.
Energy Minister Mel Knight called the program ''a road map'' to ensure Alberta's energy sector continues to thrive and contribute to the province's economy.
''All of the pieces that have been brought together are certainly very valuable and can work in concert to get us to a goal,'' Knight said.
Fort McMurray Today, Page A1, Wed July 11 2007