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September 10, 2007

British Columbia’s construction boom improves contract bargaining

The difficulties the construction industry has been having in Alberta has given British Columbians across the mountains a strange case of déjà vu.

Ninety-four and 99 per cent strike votes in Alberta? Unprecedented and overwhelming mandates? Historic mandates even?

Reminds you of the bad old days in B.C. where they used to have mystery (unidentified) pickets along with the regular ones as unions and employers played a game of chicken with each other and the Social Credit government of Bill Bennett changed the face of construction with legislation whittling away at labour’s almost complete control of the work force.

John Clarke

B.C. Labour Scene

John Clarke

Now it’s Alberta’s Labour Code being blamed for “deliberately making it impossible” for them to go on strike.

When 15 of the 25 unions involved ratified contracts with raises in wages and benefits totalling 24.4 per cent, the industry thought it was on the way to a full settlement. But other unions said they still weren’t satisfied. There were things like quality of life issues to be dealt with.

Life was hard in the oil sands and the building trades wanted changes in the way the camps for workers out in the field were being managed.

What they wanted to change was an agreement setting camp standards that had been around for the last 10 years, changes the contractors (and the oil and gas companies) resisted.

Quality of life issues are notoriously hard to negotiate because they’re so difficult to define. But such are the pressures that a super hot high cost energy industry puts on all sides.

Construction people in B.C. are not entirely amused by Alberta’s problems. They’re concerned about the oilsands capacity still to drain workers out of a B.C. already bedevilled by skill shortages.

Settlements in B.C. were reached in an atmosphere of relative tranquility Alberta used to be noted for.

According to the building trades themselves, those settlements are working very well. In the past two years there have been no enabling requests from contractors for special wage cuts to sweeten unionized company tenders in competition with a large and growing open shop sector.

Enabling requests were virtually routine in the previous 15 years.

The roaring economy B.C. is now experiencing after years of slow growth is no doubt responsible for settlements which the trades themselves agree are “pretty good.”

A hot labour market solves many problems because it often sets is own wage patterns, with or without union settlements.

It is curious that the boom in B.C. has made labour contract bargaining so amenable while the boom in Alberta has made things so difficult.

It may not be exactly the same kind of boom there. Gasoline shortages created by oil companies, unable to keep supplies in line with demand, have raised costs in oilsands production. Investors are considering reducing and even suspending some of their projects until pressures ease.

The contrasts between the two jurisdictions may be nothing more than a curiosity at the moment. But they do reveal provinces that, whatever their geographic proximity, are separated by more than the Rocky Mountains.

With a contrast like this, the notion that B.C. and Alberta can ever, even under something like the Trade, Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement, be made one is indeed hard to swallow.

John Clarke is a former industrial relations writer for the Vancouver Province.

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