Government cooperated with developer to cut union workers out of Horizon mega-project

EDMONTON-Documents recently filed with the Court of Queen's Bench in Edmonton show that the provincial cabinet used its power to over-ride existing labour law in a bid to help a major oil sands developer avoid having to operate under the provisions of duly negotiated construction agreements.

"What the documents reveal is a disturbing pattern of collusion between CNRL, the government and CLAC," says McGowan. "CNRL hatched the plan, the government paved the way and CLAC allowed themselves to be used as a pawn - all in an effort to reduce the paycheques of skilled construction workers and deny them the right to join or belong to unions of their own choice."

The documents also show that the developer - Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. of Calgary - believes the special deal it got from the government will allow it to bar its workers from joining or switching unions for the tens years it expects will be needed to build the $10.8 billion Horizon mine and heavy-oil up-grader near Fort McMurray.

"This is not just a case of an employer engaging in hard bargaining," says Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta's largest union organization, the Alberta Federation of Labour. "It's a case of the government outright breaking its own rules in an effort to help a large energy company pick the pockets of thousands of Alberta trades people. And in the process, they're attempting to unilaterally strip people of their democratic right to join a union."

"It's shocking that a company would dream up this kind of scheme. But what's even more shocking is that the government would allow itself to become a willing accomplice. It makes you ask: whose interests is the government really looking out for - big oil or ordinary citizens?"

Last May, the provincial cabinet approved an application from CNRL to grant the Horizon project special designation under Division 8 of the Alberta Labour Code. This meant CNRL could, by signing an agreement with the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC), avoid the master agreements negotiated between building trades unions and the provincial construction owners association.

Shortly after special designation had been granted, CNRL signed a labour agreement for the Horizon project with the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC). The CLAC agreement - which workers have never been given an opportunity to vote on - includes weakened provisions on things like overtime which will substantially reduce the potential earnings of tradespeople. The agreement explicitly purports to modify Building Trades agreements.

"The court documents make it clear that, right from the beginning, CNRL's intention was to sign a deal with CLAC that would over-write the agreements negotiated by the traditional building trades unions," says McGowan. "But the only way they could do that was to get the government to step in and change the rules. Unfortunately, that's exactly what the government did. CNRL wanted a sweetheart deal with CLAC and the government helped them get it."

Late last year, a group of traditional building trades unions applied for a judicial review of the cabinet's decision to grant special status for the Horizon project. It is as part of that court review that the current package of documents has been made public. The documents - included in what is called the government's official "return" or response to the court - includes letters between CNRL and the government; the official application from CNRL for special designation under Division 8; and various briefing notes to the cabinet and the provincial Minister of Human Resources. Hearing dates for the case have been set for late May. (Copies of the documents can be obtained from the AFL office).

In the meantime, McGowan is urging the government to voluntarily revisit its decision on the Horizon project - in the name of fairness and in the hopes of promoting labour peace.

"These revelations are explosive - and they have the potential to severely disrupt the labour relations climate in Alberta," says McGowan. "Our members want to get on with the job of building this province and strengthening the provincial economy. But we simply can't stand idly by and let big oil companies get away with these kinds of deliberately provocative actions."

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For more information contact:

Gil McGowan, AFL President     at 780.483-3021 or 780.915-4599 (cell)

NOTE:  Copies of the court documents can be obtained by phoning the AFL at 483-3021

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