Guest column: Trades unions understand it's not jobs at all costs

Growing up in Duncan, as I did, meant growing up in the airshed of the Crofton pulp mill. No one liked the smell but they liked what it represented — paycheques coming home to families.

The smell of the pulp mill in Duncan and other small towns in B.C. was the smell of jobs.

But Crofton is now Catalyst, and Catalyst is in a rocky situation. Crofton employees from the Cowichan Valley are going north to the oil and gas industry. In fact, half of all flights from Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland to Edmonton and Calgary are oil and gas workers.

Not much wonder then that some of the greatest supporters of the oil-fields and pipelines are found in the labour movement.

So while so many others are having a grand time dumping on Enbridge's proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, the Building and Construction Trades Department (AFL-CIO), representing Canada's building trades unions, has an entirely different position.

"Pipelines connect jobs," says spokesman Chris Smillie.

The building trades, Smillie says, support projects that bring jobs to their members, and the pipeline does just that. A billion dollars of investment supports 4,000 jobs, and the Enbridge pipeline is a $5.5-billion investment. It's not jobs at all costs, and the building trades website is clear: "Economic prosperity does not have to come at the expense of environmental care for future generations. . . . The men and women of the Canadian building trades live, work and play in Alberta and British Columbia and have a vested interest in protecting the land."

The building trades also support streamlining the regulatory process. Working people are helped by certainty. Projects get killed by a process that drags on for years.

Smillie had some words of caution regarding the shortage of skilled labour in Canada. All governments, he says, need to support apprenticeship programs and ensure that apprentices complete their qualifications. Companies need to make a point of hiring apprentices.

Canadian immigration policies need to focus more on skilled trades. Current provisions only provide for entry of about 10,000 skilled workers each year, but the country could use 50,000. The United States is our best source of skilled labour, and Canada should encourage American immigration. And, locally, schools must support their shop programs.

The politics of the building trades taking the position they do on the Enbridge pipeline must lead to some interesting conversations.

The B.C. NDP, B.C.'s labour party, is strongly opposed to the pipeline. Yet the Canadian building trades are an influential group, and their support is joined by that of the B.C. and Yukon Territory Building and Construction Trades Council, and locals of the Construction and Specialized Workers' Union, the Teamsters, the International Union of Operating Engineers, and the United Association of Plumbers, Pipefitters and Welders. Other unions remain opposed, including the Alberta Federation of Labour, the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers and the United Fishermen and Allied Workers.

Environmental groups are keeping the province on high alarm about the Northern Gateway pipeline. But working people, those who toil in our resource industries outside of the cosy streets of downtown Vancouver, understand that our province is built on oil and gas, just as in the past it was forests and fish.

It is those workers who keep our province and country ticking. They're hoping that the rest of us are listening.

The Province, July 24 2012
Guest columnist: Suzanne Anton (former Vancouver city councillor)

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