Oilsands construction unions vote to strike; 'Historic' walkout as early as next week would be first under tough Alberta law

CALGARY -- Five oilsands construction unions have voted overwhelmingly to strike, in a move that could halt work at oil-sands projects in Fort McMurray, Alta., as early as next week.

The results of the July 4 votes were presented to the Alberta Labour Relations board on Monday. Once certified, 72-hour strike notice could be served as early as Friday, said Barry Salmon, a spokesman for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 424, based in Edmonton.

"These are rather overwhelming mandates," he said. "Historic is a word that's used far too often, but that's what this is -- historic."

The five unions -- boilermakers, plumbers and pipe fitters, electrical workers, millwrights and refrigerator mechanics - held simultaneous ballots in Calgary, Edmonton and Fort McMurray earlier this month, the first such votes in almost three decades.

The electrical workers voted 94 per cent in favour of strike action, while the boilermakers and plumbers voted 99 per cent and 97 per cent, respectively, in favour. Millwrights were 90-per- cent supportive, while refrigeration mechanics came in at 85 per cent.

At issue are quality-of-life issues as opposed to wages, Salmon said. Journeyman electricians make about $35 an hour, for example.

"It just shows the level of frustration among trades," Salmon said. "We want a contract, not a strike. This is all about getting back to the table."

In addition to oilsands projects, a walkout could threaten big public-works projects that use union labour.

The unions have been without a contract since May 1. Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan described the votes as "unprecedented," in light of the province's existing labour law, which critics have complained is overwhelmingly biased in favour of contractors.

Consequently, there have been no strike votes under the legislation since it was enacted in the early 1980s.

"Alberta's labour code was deliberately written to make it impossible for construction unions to go on strike," McGowan said. "These workers are sending a very strong message, and employers ignore it at their peril."

Mark Friesen, an oilsands analyst at FirstEnergy Capital Corp., said the labour unrest is another layer of ambiguity in an oilpatch already grappling with a government-sponsored royalty review and skyrocketing capital costs.

He's not surprised the unions would vote in favour of walking off the job. However, he held out hope strike action could be averted.

Vancouver Sun, Page D9, Tues July 24 2007
Byline: Shaun Polczer

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