The Building Trades Wildcat in Alberta
Alberta labour laws are not only some of the most repressive in Canada, they may be some of the most repressive in North America. For decades the labour movement tried to change the laws in Alberta, demanding the right for all workers to strike between contracts, to collectively bargain, and anti-scab legislation. Their main weapon was lobbying a government that was hostile to their very existence, and making alliances with marginalized left-wing politicians who were shut out of the corridors of power. For a long time more and more workers were robbed of the right to strike either directly, like farm workers, university teaching assistants, and nurses, or indirectly by tying them up in so much red tape that a strike was almost impossible.
The Alberta Labour Relations Code as it applies to workers in the construction industry reads more like a grade-school algebra exam than serious legislation. To put it in its most basic form, if 75% of unions ratify a contract with the employer, the other 25% are forced into binding arbitration. There are twenty-five craft unions in the building trades in Alberta, each representing their tiny little piece of the pie; if 19 of the unions vote to settle, then the other six have to go to arbitration. Not all unions are the same size; in fact, most of the unions are quite small. So all the employer really has to do is settle with the 19 smallest unions in order to force the majority of construction workers in the province into arbitration. To add to this already insane system all the unions are broken down into groups of unions that have to serve their notice to strike together if they intend to strike, if one union fails to perform the required ritual, for whatever reason the ‘god’s’ at the Alberta Labour Relations Board become displeased and rule the strike unlawful.
On top of this, the penalties for direct economic disruption in Alberta are harsh. The fines are ten thousand dollars per day to every individual involved in an economic disruption not sanctioned by the Labour Board, the possibility of the union being decertified, and even stiffer fines to the union itself if they are found to be supporting a wildcat action, these fines can run into the millions.
Finally when all that is through, one faces blacklisting by the union and the possibility of having to find another, much less lucrative, line of work.
This is not the first time workers were on the verge of all out revolt in Alberta, completely outside the moderating influence of the labour relations system. Two years ago, in Brooks, AB, workers wildcatted in defiance of a Labour Relations Board-imposed cooling off period, where strikers must go back to work for 60 days before they can resume a strike. This wildcat was only barely reigned in by the union hierarchy in UFCW 401; several workers were fired in the wake of this action. Even after the cooling off period, it was still an extremely violent strike that climaxed with a union leader being run off the road by company goons wielding shotguns one night on a quiet back road outside Brooks. What followed was an aggressive round of lobbying on the part of the labour movement that stopped when the governing Tories promised a full review of the code. This review never came.
On September 8th 2007, the Labour Board ruled that the Carpenters could not strike in spite of having a strike mandate of well over 90% of their membership. While the Carpenters had jumped through all the hoops and played by the rules the Labourers union had not filed a notice of strike action at the same time as the other unions, meaning that no one in same ‘group’ as the Labourers had the right to strike. The Carpenters’ leadership was livid, and promised to fight the decision through the courts. On Tuesday September 11th, workers at the Petro-Canada refinery walked out. The walkout was apparently started by disgruntled trades workers who set up an ‘information picket’ at the plant gates, urging co-workers to call in sick or take the day off, shutting down significant portions of the construction site. The next day, the lines held at Petro-Canada and then spread across the province. Early in the strike, the wildcats affected not only construction but also maintenance personnel, meaning actual production for a time was affected, if only briefly and in a few facilities. Thousands of workers were out in protest against the Alberta Labour Relations Board’s decision, and the existing labour laws in the province, shutting down at least six major construction sites.
In Fort McMurray, the work disruptions lasted until the weekend and then on Monday it was business as usual again. At Petro-Canada on the outskirts of Edmonton, where it all started, work was held up well into the second week, reporting a 50% shut down seven calendar days after the initial job action.
A New Kind of Solidarity
“All the workers are here by their own choice, not by the union’s choice. My union told me to go back to work and let them deal with it…the dispute has created a new type of solidarity among those who work in the building trades.”
-Frank Lander, rank and file Scaffolder
The Canadian Press Sept. 16th 2007
The central pillar of this new kind of solidarity is the idea of the struggle being an all trades struggle. While the fight started with the carpenters, small cores of militants in several different trades, including millwrights, pipe fitters, and electricians began to coalesce around a common demand: the right to strike. The solidarity was also distinctly rank-and-file. No trade union officials supported it – to do so would have been tantamount to financial suicide under Alberta law.
A dynamic did evolve where some workers, who were heavily involved in their own hall politics, used the open forum of the mass rallies and pickets to air grievances with their local unions. What happened in individual halls was not a concern to everyone and tension did evolve between those that entered the struggle as an opposition caucus in certain unions looking to change the leadership and those who came to the struggle more recently and without an eye to reforming their halls.
The means of organization had two separate components that happened daily: the wildcat pickets at major construction sites across Northern Alberta at shift changes in the morning and at night, and the mass rallies held every morning in front of the Alberta Labour Relations Board. Information traveled quickly by telephone contacts, but also through websites and a hotline set up by rank-and-file workers to inform each other on what was happening and where the action was. Rank-and-file workers outside the unions directly involved began to print a newsletter called Impact!, aimed at informing workers in all trades of the developments in the movement.
This meant that the union hall and the union hierarchy were at least partially shut out. While officials attended some of the rallies and spoke to the crowd- mostly urging them to go back to work, the rallies and pickets were organized and carried out by rank-and-file workers. Calls to return to work were drowned out by heckles and chants of ‘general strike!’. Officials did not dare attend the pickets, not even to counsel a return to work, though, as we will see below, they handled this in a much more arms’ length manner.
“Dog shit and herring bones”
– Anonymous rank-and-file carpenter, in reply to his union’s executive request that he return to work.
Saturday Sept. 15th 2007.
Any union leader who backed this movement would have faced certain financial ruin, and possible jail time. For the leadership to stand back and try to distance themselves from these actions is possibly understandable, if lacking in courage. However, the zeal and vim with which the Alberta Building Trades Council did the bidding of their employers went far beyond their duties under the Labour Code. At one rally in front of the Labour Relations Board, the business manager for the Carpenters was booed off the stage for saying the union could do nothing to protect workers who refused the order to return to their jobs. At a smaller demonstration of workers three days later, the Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the Carpenters’ union and a group of his supporters begged workers to return to work. One phrase summed up the faith union officials have in those they represent: “We’re just workers guys, it’s time we recognize our place in the world and let the courts handle it”. By this point the wildcat activity had already lasted three days and momentum was waning, but much of the crowd was still displeased and many workers were defiant.
During the course of the wildcat activity initiated by furious Carpenters, other unions were taking strike votes; this upped the ante even further. At least one union, the IBEW, had extremely questionable election practices as it only ratified a contract by 50.5% with widespread reports of union members’ ballots arriving a few days after the ballots had been counted. In response, pickets were held outside the IBEW hall by the rank-and-file committees to protest the undemocratic practices of their local. With the IBEW settling, albeit against the will of their membership any chance of avoiding going to arbitration was lost, and along with it the opportunity for workers to strike legally.
In the second week, both major Edmonton dailies ran full-page advertisements (bought and paid for with union members’ dues) by the Alberta Building Trades Council telling strikers to go back to work. The ads repeated the statements of union officials at the rallies – that this job action was illegal, and that the union would not protect workers involved in it. Perhaps the most despicable action undertaken by several unions was to personally call workers who were at struck job sites and ordering them back to work on the evening of Sunday the 16th of September. The answer to the problems to them lay in a court battle and fighting it out in the next provincial election – where the battle would be orderly and leave the politicians and union officials with their jobs intact.
Putting the Boots to Big Oil
Spontaneity always gives you the advantage of a surprise, but it also has the trade-off of disorganization. Disorganization can be dealt with and managed by the workers themselves; that is exactly what the rank-and-file newsletters, websites, and hotline were. It would be criminal to let this be the end of the fight, and to simply go back to work without keeping the pressure on would be to repeat the mistake made in Brooks. To leave this to the politicians and union leaders would be to repeat the same mistake made over and over in the last twenty years. This fight was inspiring, but the bosses will learn from us, so all workers had better do the same.
While there was a definite beginning and end to the picket lines in Fort McMurray, the lines at the Petro-Canada refinery in Edmonton petered out slowly. The disadvantage to this is that the militants – those that are last to enter the plant – are easily identifiable, and even more easily fired. There needs to be a strategy that keeps our most militant people on the shop floor, not blacklisted. The real lesson learned here is that an exit plan is needed: pickets are easier to put up than bring down, and if the pickets aren’t brought down all at once there is the risk of hanging the best people out to dry. In order to have an exit plan there must be communication. The continuation of rank-and-file newsletters and workers meeting together in core groups should not end just because the workers are back in the plant. The real fight has only just begun; the challenge now is to bring it inside and learn how to strike on the job.
Another limit is that of clear demands. A request to change the law is easy for the government to give us, what we want is a change of the law in our favour. No doubt the right to strike is a good start, but to strike when and how? As one speaker at a rally put it, “we are born with the right to strike, and no government can take that away”. The only logical demand is the right to strike – period.
To call this a sellout would be wrong; that would imply that the craft unions that make up the Alberta Building Trades Council have betrayed their own principles. These unions have existed as nothing more than a service provided to workers for a fee for a long time; aside from pensions, vacations and benefits these unions operate merely as a hiring hall. They are as much a part of a real social movement in the interests of workers as an insurance company or temp agency.
In fact the biggest danger now would be to make the mistake of thinking that by electing new leadership to these unions that something would change. What’s holding us back in Alberta is not a lack of leadership alone – it is the craft union structure that pits union worker against union worker. In fact, the creation of jurisdictional pickets by some unions striking would have created the same problem. Had only some unions struck, they would have been faced with union scabbing as some unions continued working as others struck or a mass shutdown of construction projects like we had this fine September.
The roots of this problem lie in the day-to-day practices of union culture. In some instances unions even discourage workers from addressing issues through grievances, the tamest way possible to register discontent with the bosses. When the business unions cease to be seen as a way to resolve problems on the job, workers turn back to rank and file solidarity to make gains. This creates a tension between a new kind of unionism – one based on defiance of the law, rank-and-file power, and direct action – and the old unionism used to contain worker discontent and continue business as usual. The old unionism is characterized by alliances with politicians, hiring lawyers, and fighting things out through a stage-managed grievance procedure. The contract is a weapon that was once in our hands, but it is now in the hands of the employer. The biggest obstacle facing working people in all industries is not seizing the old union structures, but building new ones that can work for everyone, not just a handful of officers and those that they appoint.
It is for these reasons that solidarity unionism does not mean simply waiting for another revolt to happen. It means that we have to fight the issues on the shop floor too; the real challenge before all workers in the building trades is taking the fight from outside the worksite onto the shop floor. It means not just settling for a pay raise but asserting real and meaningful control over work. It means having each others’ backs, regardless of who we are, where we are from, or what trade we are in. This requires organization that is flexible enough to allow workers to deal with issues as they come up – regardless of whether the contract allows it, or even mentions it.
The idea of using a strike to enforce a political demand flies in the face of fifty years of business union practice – and that is precisely why it is going to get results. Direct action like wildcats don’t just threaten industry and government; it also threatens a senile and useless labour movement with irrelevance. The Alberta Minister of Labour, Iris Evans, is reported to have called Gil McGowan, President of the AFL, shortly after the smoke cleared to assure him that a ‘review’ of the labour laws in Alberta was coming soon, “but it has nothing to do with the pickets or demonstrations”, she was quick to add. Of course anyone with two brain cells to rub together knows that these wildcats accomplished what the unions and politicians have failed to do for decades. The challenge now is to keep the pressure on the bastards.