Skilled trades see boost in pay

But they're still catching up to the rest of the country, unions say

Ashley Fitzpatrick
Published on January 7, 2012
Workers at the Long Harbour site lay rebar for one of the buildings at Vale's nickel processing facility in Long Harbour. — File photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram

Skilled labour costs are increasing in Newfoundland and Labrador. The evidence is in the trades labour agreements.

The pay for trades workers is not uniform across the board, even within a single trade wherein workers have matching experience. Take-home pay can depend on the type of work, the employer and whether a worker is unionized or working for an "open shop," non-union contractor.

With average highs and lows for each trade, wage ranges for the province are provided online by Human Resources and Skills Development Canada.

These ranges do not differentiate between unionized and non-unionized workers.

According to the executive director of Merit Contractors Association of Newfoundland and Labrador, Paul Dubé - who works on behalf of about 80 member companies with open-shop operations in the province, employing an estimated 700 to 900 skilled workers - the majority of tradespeople in the province are non-union.

In addition to the approximately 80 companies with Dubé's organization, there are many more operating independently, he said, making comparisons across the board or over time difficult.

In discussing increases in skilled trades pay, the pay for unionized work is easier to track.

Unionized wages have increased in recent years. This has come in two ways: the first is through "special project" labour agreements and the second is through standard provincial agreements with the Construction Labour Relations Association (CLRA).

Under the special project labour agreements, trade unions are supplying workers for Vale's $3-billion nickel processing facility in Long Harbour and the Hebron GBS, the platform for the province's fourth stand-alone offshore oil project.

Workers receive megaproject premiums, with guaranteed increases in wages and benefits over the life of the project. In return, unions agree to provide labour stability, committing workers to no strikes or lockouts.

Using provisions in the Labour Relations Act, the provincial government has issued five special project orders since 1990.

The Resource Development Trades Council (RDC) represents 16 local skilled trades unions (see sidebar) in negotiating the latest special project labour agreements for workers.

"Most of the special projects have a higher package than your normal, provincial agreement," said RDC executive director David Wade. This was the case with both the Long Harbour and Hebron special project agreements.

"It's a step up. The owners and the representatives of the owners look at it as an enticement to get skilled trades to their project. So, Long Harbour is a step up from the provincial package and Hebron is a step up from Long Harbour, with that project's premium."

For work outside of the megaprojects, the unions operate under provincial agreements with the CLRA. RDC does not negotiate these agreements. Instead, each union local negotiates its own.

Standard union agreements

With the latest labour agreements not available through the provincial Labour Relations Agency, The Telegram attempted to reach each of the 16 unions of the RDC to find out what kind of increases their workers are expecting.

The majority of the provincial agreements for the unions expired in the spring of 2011 and were renegotiated over the last year. With the exception of "one or two" yet to be finalized, according to the CLRA, all have been successful in obtaining increases for their employees through 2016.

The Telegram recently received a copy of a still tentative agreement for one of the last unions to complete their negotiations - the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 2330. It outlines a $13 increase on the wage package over four years - $5 on signing and $2 each year thereafter.

Voting on that tentative agreement closes Monday, Jan. 9.

The carpenters' Local 579 settled a new agreement with CLRA in July 2011. It included a "very significant" increase for union members in that trade, according to president Gus Doyle.

"We had a $3 increase (on signing) in commercial (carpentry), with $1.50 each year thereafter. A $5 in the industrial, with a $2 increase thereafterwards."

Wages are increasing appropriately for skilled workers, Doyle said.

"Compared to other provinces throughout Canada, our wages have been significantly lower. In the late '80s, early '90s, we had absolutely no increases, and the ones we had didn't even keep pace with inflation," he said.

The latest wage packages - for special projects and the provincial base - will simply allow this province to remain somewhat competitive in retaining and attracting skilled workers, he said.

"We still haven't caught up to the rest of Canada. And because of that, it would make it a little more difficult, not impossible, but a little more difficult to attract workers."

At the bricklayers' Local 1, business manager John Leonard said a new agreement with CLRA was sewn up in June 2011. "It was $5 on signing and $2 a year for the next four years. So it was $13 over 5 years," he said.

"It was fairly significant. It was definitely playing catch-up to across the country. I don't know if we'll catch up to Alberta, but we'll definitely start catching up to other provinces, without question," he said.

Leonard cautioned some specialties had farther to go in catching up than others. "The cement masons are fairly comparable to Alberta, but the bricklayers are significantly less, under the factory end of it anyways. We're looking at probably an $8 difference in package for bricklayers (now)."

At the RDC, David Wade was asked if the ask for wages by skilled trades workers was potentially running too high.

"The deal with it is, I guess, most of the people want people working for very little here. It's been a history of Newfoundland for 1,200 years. People do make money, but it's not ordinarily the worker," he said.