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Alberta Construction Workers Fight Big Business to Make Labour Reform an Election Issue

“The ‘Alberta Advantage’ is working harder for less. That's literally what it is.”

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Alberta construction workers are fighting to end a longstanding union-busting policy known as “double breasting,” despite big business protests to maintain the status quo.

“Double breasting” allows the employer of a unionized workplace to circumvent a collective agreement by creating spinoff companies with non-unionized workers. Alberta’s lenient labour laws have allowed double breasting to proliferate.

The practice has contributed to Alberta having the lowest unionization rates in Canada.

“Quite frankly, it’s a way to skirt around unionism,” Chris Flett, Business Manager for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 955 told PressProgress. “It literally is a means to suppress the wages of the working folks.”

Alberta employers began using double breasting as a tactic to break unions during the economic downturn in the 1980s, according to an Alberta Labour History Institute report. This employer “assault” contributed to the “rapid decline for unions in the construction industry,” the report says.

“Union density in this sector went from 70% in 1982 to 10% in 1984, which resulted in wages decreasing 30 to 40% for the average construction worker,” the report notes.

Double breasting has become the industry norm in Alberta, but it doesn’t have to be, Flett says. Other provinces have cracked down on the practice over the years, like New Brunswick’s Conservative government which ended double breasting in 2008.

“We really need to seize the moment,” Flett says. “This is our time, here’s our chance to make lasting change to our labour code.”

“There are powerful lobby groups within the construction industries that are really dead set against this,” Flett added. “That is the biggest barrier. There is a lot of money and a lot of political push from giant corporations.”

The United Conservative Party has been silent on double breasting, despite formal requests for a statement from the Building Trades of Alberta.

The Alberta NDP government reviewed the practice of double breasting in 2017, but decided against making changes at the time. Now, Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley has committed to follow through and end double breasting if elected premier on May 29.

Last month, the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada, which represents some of the largest construction employers in the country like Ledcor Industrial Projects, PCL Energy and Ellisdon Industrial, wrote an open letter to Notley urging her to back off.

“Healthy competition has resulted in union and non-union employers offering high pay,” the PCAC letter states. “Indeed, construction is among the highest paying professions in Alberta, well above the average for all industries and occupations.”

Flett wrote a counter letter on behalf of IUOE dismissing PCAC claims.

“Any attempt to defend “Double Breasting” as healthy competition is an excuse to ensure employers continue to have access to a cheaper construction labour pool, and unfair advantage at the bargaining table to pay workers less,” the letter states

Wage suppression in Alberta means, compared to other provinces, construction workers have to give more hours of their lives to employers to bring in a higher income, Flett told PressProgress.

“They’re working harder, they’re working more hours. Their work-life balance is completely different.”

“‘I’ve missed a lot, working so much,’” Flett says. “I hear that quite regularly.”

“You know, a lot of birthdays and anniversaries and graduations and huge events.”

“But when you’re in it, it’s just what you do, right?”

Flett has first hand experience working for an employer who “double breasted” the workplace to get rid of the union. The employer forced him and his unionized co-workers to re-brand mining equipment for a new non-union spinoff company.

“What we’re doing is we’re actually doing the job to end our jobs,” Flett explained. “We were literally rebuilding these machines and peeling the stickers of our contractor and putting new stickers on it and painting and cleaning it up.”

Another mechanic shop in Fort McMurray closed up and laid off long-time IUOE members, Flett added, only to re-open under a new name a few blocks away.

“They did hire 20% of that workforce back but non-union and at a lesser wage rate,” Flett said.

“The ‘Alberta Advantage’ is working harder for less. That’s literally what it is.”

Scott Crichton, Assistant Business Manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 424, says employers sometimes keep their union and non-union arms running to pit workers against each other.

Employers can pressure their unionized arm to take concessions and lower their wages to compete for contracts with the non-unionized arm, Crichton explains.

“Nobody wins at a race to the bottom,” Crichton told PressProgress. “The practice of double breasting, its design and its form, is to drive wages down, not to lift workers up.”

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Terry Parker, Executive Director of the Building Trades of Alberta, says double breasting also allows employers to replace workers’ unions with “pseudo-labour” organizations like the Christian Labour Association of Canada.

“The Christian Labor Association of Canada is a pseudo-labour organization that works with the employer so closely that they give concessions so the employer can be successful off the backs of the working people,” Parker explains.

These concessions can include lowering wages, removing paid overtime provisions and reducing or removing pension, health and welfare benefits, Parker says.

“They take those concessions away because they know that employees need to put food on the table. They need to have money coming in. And they only look at the short term, not the long term concerns for that employee.”

Construction employers often bring CLAC into the workplace to fend off or replace a legitimate workers’ union, according to an Alberta Federation of Labour report.

“It became clear that the CLAC alternative was a better hedge against becoming organized,” the report notes.

CLAC also wrote an open letter to Notley defending double breasting, arguing that it “has been the norm for decades.”

But if there’s a time to make the change, it’s now, Parker argues.

Activity in the construction sector is currently on the upswing, creating ideal conditions for the significant labour reform to end double breasting, Parker explains.

“There are a lot of major capital projects that are on the books now. Moving forward, there’s going to be a lot of activity in the industry,” Parker notes. “With all these projects, there’s going to be a labor shortage, to some extent.”

“Now’s the time to try to create that stability while there’s major projects happening and while there’s a lot of work and activity in the industry.”

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Emily Leedham
Emily Leedham is PressProgress’ Prairies Reporter. Her reporting has a special focus on workers and communities, big money and corporate influence, and systemic racism.

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