Court order issued against wildcat strike at Long Harbour

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No comments from union on job action as legalities kick in

Workers gather near accommodation buildings at the Vale construction site in Long Harbour Thursday following a walkout by crane operators. — Photo by Elizabeth MacDonald/The Charter

Management at Vale’s Long Harbour construction project expect all site workers back on the job today, after being awarded an injunction against an illegal strike launched at the site Thursday morning.

The order was issued in Supreme Court in St. John’s Thursday afternoon.

Crane operators working at the Long Harbour construction site walked off the job in the early morning hours and kept workers with other trade unions from getting onto the site.

The workers are with the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 904, which represents about 100 people with contractors at the fully unionized worksite, according to an estimate provided by Vale spokesman Bob Carter.

They set up at the main gate, as the morning shift was to get underway, keeping back 1,500 to 2,000 other tradespeople scheduled to come on shift.

While the company made a spokesman available for comments throughout the day, the union offered no official statements as to the reason for the strike, its plans or expectations.

The operating engineers did not return phone calls or respond to emailed requests for an interview from The Telegram prior to deadline.

One iron worker who had been scheduled to go on shift — but chose not to cross the picket line — said the reason for the action was likely a combination of both wages and the potential introduction of workers from the United States.

“Probably they’re going to bring in crane operators now from the (United) States. They’re going to give them $10 more to come in. I guess pay their travel back and forth,” he said, asking not to be identified by name.

“If they’re going to boost the wage for them fellas coming in, why don’t they give the f--king operators $10 more an hour and they’ll have no problem to get operators to go in there.”

Higher wages elsewhere in Canada have been drawing away available Canadian crane operators, he said.

“I think mostly now, with the operators, it just came to a head, it just clashed this morning.”

At the centre of the protest, crane operator Fabian Smith confirmed the root of the problem.

“They say there aren’t enough workers, crane operators, but we know that’s not true,” Fabian Smith said, sat on one of the buses that normally takes him and his fellow crane operators to work.

“Crane operators in this province are the second-lowest paid in the country. They can’t get the workers because many of them won’t move here for lower wages. Why should they? Wages in Alberta weren’t high overnight. Wages went up because of demand. They have the demand here, but aren’t offering the wages to go along with it,” he said.

Smith noted workers from the United States are being trained to come here, but it took him about 5,400 hours of work to become a “red seal.” He wonders if the workers that will come from the States have the same level of skill.

“And there is talk of those people getting more wages than us. It’s crazy.”

He said he thought Newfoundlanders should be able to work in their home province for the same wages they would get in Alberta.

“If the need is here in Newfoundland, why aren’t the wages following? The cost of living has gone up here, so why not our wages?”


Living allowances

Smith also said the living allowance changes that have been put into place since the workers have been there are not good for the workers either. He said since changes to the schedule at the site, the employees end up getting less on a monthly basis, although they still have to pay a full month’s rent where they live while working, whether they are there or not.

“The landlord don’t care if we are on the job or not. They just need their monthly rate.”

“We deserve to be compensated well for this job. We sacrifice a lot to work for these corporations.

“There is no labour shortage. There are people actually quitting their jobs at Long Harbour to go out West. What does that tell you?”

Smith said he and the other workers will continue job action until they get what they want.

“We will be here as long as it takes,” he said. “I am glad to see other workers support us. It makes sense. We are all from ‘Local 709’ (Newfoundland area code) and we are all sticking together.”

To date, all construction jobs at the site of the emerging nickel processing facility have been filled by workers from Newfoundland and Labrador or elsewhere in Canada.


Peak employment upcoming

Vale has made it clear workers from outside of Canada have been considered an option to fill positions, as the project moves to its peak employment later this summer.

The site employs between 4,200 and 4,300 people, Vale spokesman Bob Carter said. It is expected to have 4,500 at peak construction.

Lawyers with Vale responded to the wildcat strike by preparing an application for the courts, to keep the protestors from preventing others from going to work. That application was filed and approved Thursday afternoon.

Carter said the company received no notice the protest was going to be launched.

“It appears the operating engineers are suggesting their wage rates should be increased to be made comperable with Alberta,” he said.

Yet the Long Harbour project falls under a rare, provincial “special project order,” wherein a collective agreement sees wage rates locked in for the life of the project and workers explicitly agree not to go on strike.

The Resource Development Trades Council negotiated the applicable collective agreement in 2009, on behalf of all 16 unions active at the Long Harbour site.

The International Union of Operating Engineers and Local Union 904 is a signatory to that agreement.

“It sets out all the terms and conditions for work — including wages,” Carter said.

Organizations: International Union of Operating Engineers, Supreme Court, Resource Development Trades Council

Geographic location: Long Harbour, United States, Alberta Canada Newfoundland and Labrador Canada.Peak

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Recent comments

  • Bill
    July 14, 2012 - 07:08

    We wanted all this work in the Province, now it looks like we do not want to do the work. Like every occupation in NL we are not on par with Alberta wages. There are pros and cons to working in both places. A note to the workers...the guys who were on radio complaining about their wages and travel benefits were not doing any favours. Nobody here going to pity them. Lets just get back to work and try to resolve this.

    • Brett
      July 15, 2012 - 06:17

      What I don't understand is why it's Vale's problem? The NL union signed the contract, if there's a problem with it - have the union members on the job get out of paying their union dues to help make up the difference + have that covered by the rest of the workers on different jobs. As to there not being enough workers - I hear all the time that there are apprentices, and younger workers that don't have the experience, and the only people I can blame for that problem are the unions themselves as they have not trained enough people to fit the need for workers. This definitely should have been foreseen and dealt with by the union leadership. I put this whole thing in their lap. To say you get paid for the flight/travel in Alberta but not here is garbage. You're being paid to be away from your family + compensated for hardship. RCMP officers in the Yukon or NWT get a top up over ones in urban centres. Quit your whining. You have an issue - take it up with the union, or quit the union and take up another profession. But striking illegally should wind you in jail with massive fines.

    • Brett
      July 16, 2012 - 13:23

      After listening to open line - I feel I have a much better understanding of the issues. The telegram should look in to the past attempts at finding resolutions for grievances and show whether Vale is or is not playing a delaying tactic game. If that is the case - the province should step in. I still disagree with the "Wildcat" nature of the strike (but that is semantics) as I believe it would have been in the workers better interest to declare that they would strike by date "x" if vale didn't stop delaying their payments on lost arbitration cases, and the muddled approach of explaining the workers issues has made this seem more of a "reneging on a deal based on wages" on behalf of the workers rather than Vale not honouring their commitments. If Vale has been found to not be honouring their end of the bargain, I say hit them hard with penalties 3-4x's damages for each employee. The idea that some of the payment mechanisms changed after being initially started (payment for rent/etc) is appalling. It leads one to believe that after consideration some people thought that they could start to nickel and dime the employees and short change them to increase profits after having lawyer sessions to play word games with the agreement.

  • Newfoundlander-in-calgary
    July 13, 2012 - 20:06

    While I hope anyone back home can get the best wage possible its tough to assess whats going on without hearing directly from the union,. The story cites comments from a number of crane operators and other workers but it mostly seems to be rumours. UNless Vale has actually done something wrong, I don't like this action much since the operators union signed a deal. If the economy had crashed elsewhere and there was a flood of available tradespeople at cheaper wages you can be certain the union would not have agreed to a reduction in wages. Also it seems like the company was caught completely off-guard. If thats true thats poor dealings-- Someone should certainly know what the grievances are before you jump to strike action against them. That said, I am aware that Vale has a reputation such that it would not be surprising if they did things that could lead to legitimate issues for a union. I think this is one where we need to stay tuned and wait for the full story to come out

  • Riz Fazal
    July 13, 2012 - 12:41

    I've worked for Vale in the past.... Since this Brazilian giant took over from the former INCO, almost every site they acquired has gone through a labor disruption... Although the workers here do not work directly for Vale, the treatment of workers seems to be on par with Vale's direction.... Seems here the companies roped the workers into signing a contract for wage freezes for the life of the project, which is fine if everyone on site is getting paid the same wages...... But it seems the companies have opted to bring in extra workers, pay them more and pay for their flights back and forth from the states?? If this is indeed the truth, then what did the company expect was going to happen?? i never understand why companies are wiling literally slap their workers in the face by bringing in other workers from other countries and give them benefits not offered to current workers...... maybe they should try to offer their current workers and other local unemployed workers these same benefits and see if they can fill the vacancies?? I wish the government would step in and force them to level the playing field for all employees, and if after that they still need more workers, then by all means go ahead and recruit from outside the province or country..... I agree with the workers if they are being short changed and others are being compensated unfairly to come work in Canada, and if the companies have not done the due diligence to exhaust their recruitment here locally.