Construction labour laws face major review: Province seeks changes to reduce costs

The Alberta government is quietly consulting with employers and unions about major changes to the labour laws that cover the province's massive construction sector.

Employment and Immigration Minister Thomas Lukaszuk ordered the review last month in the wake of a report and intense lobbying by an industry coalition which believes the current labour relations code is making Alberta companies uncompetitive.

"I'm not convinced changes are needed at this time," said Lukaszuk, "but I'm open to being convinced by any or all stakeholders."

The coalition - representing companies which are not unionized or where workers are represented by the independent Christian Labour Association of Canada - wants amendments that would significantly impact the roughly 300,000 workers in the province's construction industry.

Its key recommendations include:

- Allowing companies to complete projects under the terms that existed prior to certification or organization by another union;

- Restricting unions from fining their members when they work for nonunion employers;

- Prohibiting unions from using dues for political activities without the prior consent of employees;

- Limiting the time that striking workers can delay people who cross their picket lines;

- Stopping building trades unions and their contractors from subsidizing bids on smaller projects with market enhancement recovery funds from bigger deals.

The Merit Contractors Association - which represents 1,300 companies and over 40,000 workers that are not unionized - believes the changes are needed to ensure investors in Alberta oilsands aren't scared away by uncertainty about construction costs escalating out of control.

"We are becoming known as a highcost jurisdiction," Merit president Steve Kushner said.

"The province had 12 upgrader projects on the books that are now not proceeding."

Roughly half of the major industrial and commercial projects in Alberta are currently completed by the 60,000 workers represented by the province's building trades unions.

Eighteen of those 24 trades recently signed four-year agreements that tie wages to the price of oil and the consumer price index. Industry watchers have said the deal offers stability for big projects on the books and will help avoid the bumpy labour conditions seen previously in Alberta's roller-coaster economy.

"We've come up with an enduring solution," said Neil Tidsbury, president of Construction Labour Relations Alberta, the industry body that negotiated the deal.

Tidsbury said the government's review is the result of attempts by non-union companies to better position themselves to undercut his members on projects.

"The report that prompted this is packaged in the guise of making Alberta more competitive," he said.

"They're really saying don't let us ever get organized by the building trades. If we do get organized, don't let it have any effect on us, and if we can destabilize the building trades' relationship with their contractors, all the better."

Officials with the building trades union declined to comment on the review, but Larry Prins, CLAC's regional director, said the coalition's proposed changes would allow industry-wide unions like his to better compete with the building trades in its attempts to represent workers.

Lukaszuk has asked two Edmonton lawyers - John Hope and Dwayne Chomyn - to conduct the review and provide him with a report by the end of October.

"My job is to ensure Alberta continues to shine and not be responsive to individual knee-jerk requests," said Lukaszuk, "but if I find there is a need and the parties agree on it, then you will see changes."

Calgary Herald, Fri Aug 26 2011
Byline: Matt McClure 

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