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Alberta labour study stirs controversy

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The 220-page Alberta Construction Labour Legislation Review by Edmonton labour lawyer Andrew C.L. Sims has met with divided reaction from the industry.

The 220-page Alberta Construction Labour Legislation Review by Edmonton labour lawyer Andrew C.L. Sims has met with divided reaction from the industry.

Organized labour’s initial response to the review’s six recommendations has been positive, as they believe that it has preserved the integrity of the registration bargaining process.

However, open-shop and union contractors are calling the report flawed.

“We are very disappointed with the report. The government has squandered an opportunity to make the industry more competitive,” said Stephen Kushner, president of Merit Contractors Association, which represents open-shop contractors in Alberta.

Kushner has sent a letter to the government asking for time to provide information on where his association sees factual errors and omissions in the review and urging it not to rush legislation forward.

The Progressive Contractors Association of Canada (PCA) has also called the review report flawed. The PCA represents some unionized construction employers.

“PCA has strong concerns with both the substance of the report and the process by which it has been presented.  We don’t feel like all the facts are on the table,” said Paul de Jong, PCA president in a news release.

He is also urging government to slow legislation.

Sims set out six key recommendations intended to provide clarity in labor situations and also urged government to initiate regular industry meetings to address industry issues. The report states that past labour discussions focused on providing balance between labour and management.

“Much of the debate now is between how the (Alberta Labour) Code affects one group of contractors vis-a-vis another and between different styles of unions,” he said.

The review builds on three earlier studies carried out in 2010, 2011, and 2012. It is not a full review of the Alberta Labour Code, but only relates to construction industry issues.

“These recommendations, made after wide consultation, will update these systems to reflect changes within the industry, adding clarity where needed, while maintaining those features that have made it successful over time,” Sims said in an issued statement.

Jobs, Skills Training and Labour press secretary Janice Schroeder said the government is implementing the recommendations.

“Some will require legislative changes and some will require a mechanism so all members of the industry can talk to each other. We are starting to set up those meetings,” she said.

The six recommendations are that:

• Collective agreements under the Labour Relations Code include provisions for ‘major project’ agreements and that disputes regarding the terms of a major project agreement should be resolved through binding arbitration rather than a strike or lockout;

• All-employee, multi-trade bargaining units can be appropriate in certain cases, while maintaining the ability for employees to still choose traditional single-trade units.

• There is protection for local unions by requiring international or parent unions to adhere to hourly rates and other terms of existing collective agreements;

• Alberta Labour Relations Board (LRB) re-evaluate the ‘build-up’ principle or the process of certifying unions based on their anticipated size at worksites;

• LRB examine whether major electrical transmission lines should be placed in the ‘specialty construction section’ for purposes of bargaining;

• Regular meetings be implemented among industry, labour and government to improve understanding of issues and provide an opportunity for open dialogue.

Construction Labour Relations Alberta (CLR-A) president Neil Tidsbury said his association was pleased its’ concerns were heard and with the report findings.

“There were things that had we put hand to pen, we would have said a little differently,” he said.

“But, we accept the wisdom of the recommendations and we will work with them.”

He added that the review has reaffirmed a strengthening and maintenance of the integrity of the registration bargaining process and that it did not succumb to those who wanted to destabilize or circumvent that process.

Building Trades of Alberta (BTA) executive director Warren Fraleigh said he is pleased that the recommendations support the registration bargaining process, but realizes there is a gap between legislation and recommendations.

“It all comes down to the details of the legislation,” he said, adding he’s hopeful his organization and other industry stakeholders will play a role in bringing forward recommendations on legislation.

The Competitiveness Alliance issued a release about it.

“The results did not provide everything we anticipated,” the group stated.

It added that members would work to ensure that the recommended amendments to the legislation serve the interests of the construction industry. The Alliance represents the Boilermaker Contractors Association, the BTA, the CLR-A and the Electrical Contractors Association of Alberta.

However, there are still some concerns.

“There are serious inadequacies in the Sims report,” Kushner said.

He cited the example of “carve-outs,” where contractors on large scale projects can apply and be granted relief from strike or lock-out action,

“The solution that is proposed makes the application more arduous than what now exists. It is more difficult and could be more expensive to seek this kind of status,” he said, adding that he is disappointed that the government still refuses to release the report carried out two years ago by lawyers Dwayne Chomyn and John Hope.

“The government has said the Sims report and Hope-Chomyn reports are aligned, but we would like to see it and we think many of the government MLA’s would also like to see it,” he said, adding he hopes the government will consider additional input before rushing legislation.

Report reaffirms importance of neutrality

The Alberta Construction Labour Legislation Review has underscored the importance of neutrality in the construction industry by government, a major employer of construction services, and the Alberta Labor Relations Board (LRB).

“Government needs to be on top of the way the industry is developing and be, and be seen to be, open to hearing all sides of a debate before implementing change,” said the review carried out by Edmonton labour lawyer Andrew Sims.

He said that the provincial labour minister needs to assume a role much like an “honest broker” fostering productive relations between labour and management.

Sims, in his report, said remaining neutral is a challenge for government as it is a major employer of the construction industry and also it can be influenced by broader economic concerns.

The LRB also needs to remain neutral in resolving issues, he said, underscoring the jurisdictions between the minister of labour and the board.

“The board is the appropriate forum to interpret what the (Labour Relations) code means.

However, it is not a substitute and should not be put in the role of being a substitute, for multi-stakeholder dialogue about legislative change that might affect the industry,” he said.

Sims urges that the government establish roundtable discussions or a multi-sector advisory council to discuss legislation that might affect the industry.

“A standing consultation process would go some distance to dispelling the perhaps unjustified feeling by some in the industry that some influences are more readily heard than others.”

by Jean Sorensen

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