The Alberta Federation of Labour claims anti-union construction firms want to amend the labour code to include unfair restrictions and union-busting measures, but others say the changes are all about increasing competitiveness.
"The changes being proposed in the government's review of the code are an unjustified attack on unions and hundreds of thousands of working Albertans," said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL).
The AFL executive met in Calgary on Sept. 28 to issue a statement that calls on the provincial government to stop a proposed review of the labour code.
A group of non-union construction firms, called the Construction Competitiveness Coalition, are involved in a fact-finding process with Employment and Immigration Minister Thomas Lukaszuk to investigate the need to undertake a formal review of the labour code.
McGowan claimed this preliminary investigation was started at the request of the coalition, which includes members from Merit Contractors Association, the Christian Labour Association of Canada and the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada.
He is concerned that the terms of the review were set by this group, which is calling for union-busting measures.
"While those who sought the review claim it is under the guise of making the construction industry more competitive, the truth is the complete opposite," said McGowan.
They are asking the government to take sides and give an unfair advantage to them in competing against employers who work with traditional unions."
Merit Alberta vice-president Bill Stewart rejects McGowan's view about the suggestions being made by the coalition to Minister Lukaszuk.
"We want to provide investors with certainty, in terms of cost and schedule, but now it is being characterized as union busting," Stewart said.
"There is nothing that we are proposing that will affect the relationship the traditional unions have with their employers and employees."
According to Stewart, one of the main tasks undertaken by the coalition was to clarify language in Division 8 of the labour code.
"In B.C. and Saskatchewan, the labour code allows for an all employee, wall to wall, bargaining unit," he said.
"In the world of independent unions, they don't organize workers on a craft by craft basis. But, the labour code does not allow wall to wall bargaining units, as they do in other jurisdictions in this country."
Division 8 of the Alberta labour code allows major developers, such as Syncrude and Canadian Natural Resources Ltd, to negotiate an agreement with the traditional building trades that spans the whole life of the project with a no strike, no lock out provision.
However, during the last oil boom period, the major developers wanted to employ workers for their construction projects from all available sources of labour involved in the industry.
For example, CNRL's Horizon project was built under an "inclusive agreement", which allowed everyone on site, including union, independent union and non-union.
From the union perspective, Division 8 of the Labour Relations code is considered to be unconstitutional because it is being used to force construction workers to be represented by an organisation and contract they had not voted to support.
"Other developers who want to use this provision, are at risk that if it is put in place there will be a lawsuit," said Stewart. "There is a need to clarify the language in the code so it addresses these Charter issues."
Another change proposed by Merit is legislation to prohibit unions from using member dues for political activities without the prior consent of their members.
"Merit has been advocating to allow people to opt out of the portion of their fees that is not related to the negotiation of a collective agreement," said Stewart.
According to Stewart, Canada is the last country in the world that still allows this to go on.
From the union's perspective, Merit does not practice what they preach because they were a large contributor to the recent campaigns for the leadership of the Alberta progressive conservative party.
Another proposal would ensure greater labour mobility by preventing unions from fining members for working for employers they deem to be hostile.
Finally, the coalition seeks to ensure that the restrictions on the use of Market Enhancement Recovery Funds (MERFs) are maintained.
They consider this to be an unfair bidding as these funds had been used by some craft unions to subsidize commercial bids of their signatory construction companies, in a way that distorted fair bid competition.
Journal of Commerce, Wed Oct 5 2011
Byline: Richard Gilbert