After voting 97 per cent in favour of a strike, Alberta’s unionized carpenters, scaffolders and roofers did something last week that hasn’t happened in this province’s construction sector for 30 years: they walked off their jobs, many of them in the hectic oil patch. Yet it was an illegal strike—and a messy business. By midweek, the labour board had ordered it ended, at pain of police enforcement, and, at the Horizon oil sands project, Canadian Natural Resources reportedly fired 200 labourers who joined the disruption. “What’s at stake,” says Neil Tidsbury, head of the contractors’ association, “is the stability of the industry.”
Driving the job action is Alberta’s labour code, adopted in 1982 to make building-sector strikes—the unions argue, anyway—impossible. It says that if three-quarters of construction unions sign deals, the rest must submit to arbitration, never an appealing prospect. The carpenters had just missed that threshold. Initially they’d sought an $11 hourly raise—industrial carpenters now earn $31—but they now walked to protest the code. Union head Martyn Piper neither “condoned nor endorsed” the action, yet remained ambivalent: “I’ve never felt more proud to be a union leader in my life,” he told Maclean’s.
Such sentiments aren’t good news for the oil sands, which account for much of Alberta’s $150 billion in industrial construction. The sands now employ 15,000—tough to achieve in a labour crunch—but will need over double that by 2010 given current scheduling, says Tristone Capital’s Chris Feltin. Unrest may cause developers to rethink plans and cost estimates, chilling investors. All this hands unions, says Feltin, “a very big stick” in the fight for morsels of Alberta’s oil wealth. “Working people really haven’t seen a whole lot of benefit from this boom,” says Piper. “I think this is just the beginning of a long story.” M
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