FORT ST. JOHN, B.C. – A group of three labour unions is seeking to have the unionized workers employed by the Site C project’s largest contractor ditch their current union and take over representing them.
The TEL Group, comprised of The International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 213, the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 115, and the Construction and Specialized Workers Union Local 1611, is trying to take over representation of Peace River Hydro Partners’ employees, who are members of the Christian Labour Association of Canada. IUOE representative Josh Towsley says that the group of three unions was contacted by PRHP employees, saying that they were unhappy about a lack of representation from CLAC. “We were contacted by employees that work for them who are upset with the lack of representation over grievances and payroll issues and a number of other things on site,” said Towlsey. “Safety is a huge concern for the members on site. We’ve seen the big rock trucks laying on their side in pictures. So the members are quite worried about the representation they’ve received from their union to deal with these.”
Towsley said in response to this, the group of three unions decided to begin an attempt to represent the workers, which is often referred to as a “raid.” According to BC Labour Relations Board rules, these raids are only allowed to occur during the seventh and eighth months of a collective agreement. The agreement between Peace River Hydro Partners and the CLAC went into effect on August 20th, 2015, meaning that raids are permissible until April 20th. Towsley said that after being denied access to the Site C accommodation lodge, the IOUE received approval from the LRB to have access to the lodge two days per week. Peace River Hydro Partners Human Resources Manager Craig Cornell said that the IUOE was given “unprecedented” access to the lodge. “Access was granted for the 25th of January. Normally under the collective agreement it would only be eight weeks in the seventh and eighth month of the agreement. But, based on the board ruling for access to the site for the International Union of Operating Engineers to the ATCO camp the raid period actually started on January 25th. It goes until the 20th of April.”
Ryan Bruce with the CLAC’s Membership Development says that things are still business as usual for his union. “We aim to build a positive working relationship with our members. We provide positive representation, and we’re on site and connecting with them and we’re following up on labour issues that come up from time to time, especially on a project of this size,” said Bruce. “At the end of the day if you do that and your members are happy with how things are going, that’s the best defence that you can have.” Bruce also says that his union has been working hard to bring forward workers’ concerns about safety, payroll, and other issues to Peace River Hydro Partners’ attention.
In order for the raid to be successful, the IUOE needs to have at least 50 percent of the workforce that is represented by the CLAC and are in good standing sign IUOE membership cards. Once that occurs, the IUOE will bring the results to the LRB. If it is determined that at least half of the workforce has signed memberships cards, the LRB will then oversee a secret ballot vote by the workforce to determine which union they would like to have represent them. These types of raids are uncommon, but do occur. In 2009, the BC Nurses Union attempted a raid on both the BCGEU and Hospital Employees Union for the licensed practical nurses that those two unions represented.
BC Federation of Labour President Irene Lanzinger says that while union raiding is allowed by the LRB’s rules, normally unions that are members of the BC Fed agree not to raid each other. However, Lanzinger says that since CLAC is not a member of the BC Fed, “we’re fine with this group raiding CLAC,” adding, “We have some issues with the way they represent their members.” Lanzinger pointed out however that the BC Nurses Union’s membership was suspended from the BC Fed after their first attempt at raiding the province’s LPNs, which was ultimately successful in 2012.
Even if the raid is successful, the changes on the site wouldn’t be all that large, according to Cornell. “There’s a lot of misinformation that goes out there that if another trade union is successful during the open period that the collective agreement opens up to new negotiations. That, in fact is false. It’s the same collective agreement, same terms and conditions until the agreement expires.”