UPDATED: Go back to work, unions urge strikers

Story unfolding today at Long Harbour site

Colin MacLean colin.maclean@tc.tc
Published on July 16, 2012

Hundreds of workers from the unions active at Long Harbour's construction site are continuing an illegal job action that began last Thursday.

Workers have gathered in a gravel parking area off the roadway, just around the corner from the off-ramp at Chapel Arm.

While the initial job action was credited to crane operators, it is now clear members from most if not all unions are now participating.

Workers who spoke with The Telegram say they are willing to risk losing their jobs because they feel union leaders are no longer representing their interests.

Workers made specific complaints- noting the complaints had been spelled out in hundreds of unresolved grievances on file with the employers and union leadership.

Tom Murphy with the operating engineers said he filed a grievance two years ago.

"I'm in there operating a concrete plant and I have no foreman," he told The Telegram.

"That's not the way it's supposed to be."

Murphy said he was told by the business manager at his union last December a resolution would be coming in a month or two. He said the issue is still outstanding.

His work at the site, he estimated, will be completed anywhere from December of this year to March.

"They never deal with it," said Kevin Manning, who said he expects to be dismissed from his job for the action, even though, he said, the original agreement isn't being followed.

Vale was awarded a court order against the job action last week.

The union leaders, through the umbrella organization negotiating on behalf of the 16 trade unions, has said all workers not returning to work are offering up their positions at the site.

The Telegram will have more on this story later today.

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Previous Story

By the time most people sit down for their morning coffee and read this story its next chapter will have already been written.

Will striking workers at Vale’s Long Harbour construction site go back to work? Or will they risk losing their jobs and continue with their strike?

Sunday night, the workers of Long Harbour were faced with such a choice.

And they faced it without the support of their unions.

The Resource Development Trades Council held a news conference Sunday and told its members to go to work today — or risk losing their jobs.

Gus Doyle, president of the council, told reporters that such action is inevitable if the workers don’t go back to work.

“If not today, maybe tomorrow. The employer will decide that. But yes, eventually they will replace these workers,” said Doyle.

He added he hopes the situation will not deteriorate that far.

The council represents 16 unions involved in the construction of the Vale nickel processing plant in Long Harbour.

 

A wildcat strike has paralyzed the massive project since Thursday.

Crane operators working at the site walked off the job in the early morning hours of Thursday. Other workers from other trade unions would not go on site, effectively shutting work down. Individual members of other trade unions have since joined crane operators in their protest.

A court injunction ordered them not to block access to the site, but a picket line continued over the weekend.

The trades council announced Sunday it did not sanction the strike and said in no uncertain terms it does not support any continuation of it.

 

Council talking to protesters

The council, by way of its member unions, has been talking with the protesters since they walked off the job Thursday.

Unfortunately, nothing came from those meetings, said Doyle.

“We tried to address those concerns with them and, unfortunately, we were unable to. We’re not sure what these workers plan for the future and what they will do. The rest of the workers, the workers that we represent on the this site, will be back on the job tomorrow morning and things will continue as they did, prior to this action on Thursday morning,” he said.

The group that started the strike, the crane operators, originally said in media interviews they were fed up with having low wages compared with the rest of the country. They were also upset at the prospect of American skilled trades workers being brought onto the site.

Some of the workers who have been picketing drove to St. John’s to attend the trades council’s news conference.

Those that spoke with The Telegram (not all of whom were from the crane operators’ union) added other grievances to the list. They included: low morale at the worksite, changes to the work schedule on short notice and changes to living allowances.

They also expressed great frustration their unions are not supporting them. And there were claims Vale has broken their collective agreement by reducing living allowances.

 

‘We want to work’

One man, Gerald Musseau, said he moved home from Alberta to work for Vale and wants to go back to work — but not while these grievances are outstanding.

“We want to work in Newfoundland. We’ve been gone all our lives. I’ve been gone for 20 years. We want to work for Vale,” he said.

Worker Todd Brocklehurst added, “We’re not asking for anything more than we already had.”

But the trades council refutes the claim of Vale breaking the agreement.

It has investigated the workers claims, it said, and come up empty.

“We can’t find any truth to these allegations. It’s been reviewed and looked at. If it is true, it will be addressed,” said Doyle.

He also denied claims by the strikers that their concerns are being ignored.

“It’s not lack of support. It’s lack of giving them the answer they prefer to hear,” he said.

Some of the workers’ concerns have to do with wages, he added, and that is a topic that is not open for change at Long Harbour.

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 council negotiated the applicable collective agreement in 2009, on behalf of all 16 unions active at the Long Harbour site.

Reopening that agreement is “not in the cards,” said Doyle.

In conclusion, he encouraged everyone to show up for work today.

“There is no sanctioned picket line by any union in the (council) and in fact we’re totally against what the workers are doing and the way they are addressing these issues. They keep saying their issues are not being looked at. That’s totally wrong,” he said.

 

cmaclean@thetelegram.com

Twitter: @TelegramMacLean