Alberta Labor Relations Board bans scaffolders from refusing voluntary overtime, declaring it an ‘illegal strike’

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AlumaSafway scaffolders at Suncor’s oil sands operations in northern Alberta refused to accept voluntary overtime beyond their 10-hour shift in late August to protest low wages and miserable working conditions. Acting on behalf of the billionaire energy giant, which has a terrible health and safety record, AlumaSafway subsequently filed a case with the Alberta Labor Relations Board (ALRB). The board dutifully banned the workers’ protest as an “illegal strike”.

A scaffolder in Alberta

The action of the workers, members of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America (UBC), aimed to protest against the appalling working conditions that have been known for years. Suncor’s operations are notorious for having a very poor safety record. There have been 12 workplace fatalities at Suncor locations since 2014, more than all of the company’s closest competitors combined. Among other energy companies in the region, Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. four workplace fatalities during that period, while Cenovus Energy Inc. recorded one.

The BAG judgment not only testifies to the ruthless greed for profit of the energy companies, but also to the function of state institutions, which are primarily aimed at guaranteeing occupational safety, and the trade unions that support them as tools of the corporate elite.

The company justified its decision to take UBC Local 1325 to the regulator with an anonymous letter urging workers to collectively refuse overtime. The ALRB ruled in favor of the employer, ruling that the “anonymous letter to workers was distributed proposing that workers collectively refuse overtime from Monday to receive compelling incentives from the employer, including improvements in pay or working conditions.” , August 22, 2022.”

The ruling went on to state that the “board of directors’ anonymous letter and joint refusal by workers to accept overtime hours to compel the employer to agree to the terms of employment constituted an unlawful threat of an unlawful strike under Section 106 of the HGB, Section 71.” [of the Labour Relations Code]and the Board declares that, contrary to this provision, these employees have threatened an illegal strike.”

The ALRB’s guidelines have been filed with the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench, making them enforceable as a court order, violation of which could result in civil or criminal penalties.

The ruling sums up the state of class relations in Canada in the clearest terms. While big business is free to use all the tools of the state apparatus and the courts to criminalize workers’ resistance to their relentless pursuit of profit, workers are prevented at every turn from reacting collectively. The so-called “industrial relations system”, including collective bargaining, should be better described as labor enforcement by a collective dictatorship of companies, unions and governments over the working class. There is no way for workers to defend even their most basic interests through these rigged institutions of bourgeois class rule.

AlumaSafway reacted with unbridled glee at the verdict, issuing a memo to staff in the tone of a schoolmaster lecturing a misbehaving child:

The Board ruled that refusing to work “voluntary” overtime when carried out collectively by a group of employees, as here, is an illegal strike and violates the Industrial Relations Act.

Consequences for employees who, contrary to this order, refuse to work overtime as a group include:

– Disciplinary or termination of employment for this conduct.

– Banning AlumaSafway from hiring those who continue to engage in illegal activities.

– Legal action against striking employees for any damage caused by the illegal strike (through complaint or legal proceedings). You could be held personally liable for additional production costs and penalties owed to the owner [Suncor] or even the loss of the contract with our customer.

-Disregarding the judicial process for violating the order entered by the court (possibility of fines and even possible imprisonment).

-We also expect that the owner will be very angry about striking employees. It is possible that the owner will consider a location ban for those involved.

UBC merely published a copy of the ALRB regulation on its website without comment. This is hardly surprising given that unions in Canada – as elsewhere in the world – are more concerned with defending the privileged positions of union bureaucrats, which give them the system of “collective bargaining” and various forms of union management and unionization state-corporatist partnerships, not the workers they purport to represent.

Derrick Schulte, executive secretary and treasurer of the Alberta Regional Council of Carpenters and Allied Workers, which oversees four local unions, including UBC Local 1325, was quick to point out that workers were no longer refusing to work overtime.

Schulte noted that AlumaSafway employees felt they were working excessive hours, not getting enough time off, and not being adequately compensated for the time they spent away from their families. He said he was unaware of these complaints beforehand, but acknowledged the practice had been going on for some time, with staff most recently receiving a miserable 47 cents an hour raise in November 2019. Schulte explained that according to the collective agreement, employees should not refuse overtime without “just cause”, such as B. cannot find childcare.

Comments from the Reddit page where the company memo appeared underscore that the Suncor plant, where the scaffolders work, operates under such brutal working conditions and with such a disregard for worker safety that the oil giant is struggling to fill the necessary jobs occupy.

A worker said that his or her father works at the factory. Due to the difficulty in attracting labor, the company reportedly offered its workers an extra $150 a day — but the scaffolders were excluded from that incentive. “That was 90 [degrees] Every day for the last few weeks and these guys out there are working hard with everyone else and not getting the same bonus,” the commenter wrote shortly after the overtime denial. “[S]o they only started to work the hours stipulated in the contract. 40 hours a week.”

One worker wrote: “What annoys me is the refusal to work ‘voluntary’ overtime. So why not accepting voluntary OT is considered a strike doesn’t seem very voluntary to me.”

Noting the complicity of the industrial relations system in enforcing company regulations, another commenter wrote: “Denial of overtime is an illegal strike?? What the heck do we even have for an employment agency? This is absolutely ridiculous. I’m shocked.”

Another added: “Working to rule isn’t flashy, it’s either voluntary or mandatory, it can’t be both.”

Without referring to the terms of the employment contract, or even providing the alleged letter asking workers to refuse overtime, the ALRB arbitrarily stated that the scaffolders had made “an unlawful threat of an unlawful strike”. But the memo issued by AlumaSafway specifically states that workers refused to work “voluntary” overtime.

The ALRB and the company, with union approval, are making a conscious attempt to change the definition of ‘voluntary’ by claiming that the term applies only to the decisions of individuals.

The collective action of management to suppress wages, limit social benefits and enforce grueling working conditions is of course seen by the ruling class as a perfectly legitimate business activity. However, written communications between employees to behave collectively in relation to voluntary activities are considered a breach of their contractual obligations. Workers must ask whether verbal communication about working conditions will be restricted next.

The construction industry in general, and scaffolding in particular, are notoriously hazardous work areas. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, scaffolding-related accidents result in approximately 60 deaths and 4,500 injuries annually in this country. The most common injuries are serious, including traumatic brain injuries, spinal cord injuries, amputations, broken bones, and lacerations.

In Canada, more than 40,000 workers are injured in falls each year, and they account for a large percentage of the “lost-time injuries” accepted by trade associations across the country.

Rob Stewart, a Calgary-based occupational safety expert, told the Canadian Press that hazardous working conditions are “systemic” throughout the oil sands industry and the result of a conflict between a desire to improve safety performance and the need to maximize profits.

Stewart explained, “Companies say, ‘We value safety,’ but then they also say, ‘Hey, we need to have that level of production, we need to have shareholder value.'” He added that accidents happen when companies try to Save money by saving on equipment, staff, or other resources. “It’s a matter of cost and schedule, and that’s reflected in what’s actually happening on the ground,” he said.

In addition to the generally miserable working conditions on construction sites, the energy industry’s contempt for its employees has been clearly shown in its disastrous reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic. Canada’s oil and gas sector, with its overcrowded labor camps, traveling workforce and confined workplaces, has been and remains a hotbed for coronavirus transmission.

In 2021, dozens of outbreaks at locations in and around Fort McMurray and across Alberta, fueled by the more contagious and deadly COVID-19 variants B.1.1.7 and P.1, helped place Alberta in the top ranked province highest per capita number of active COVID-19 cases in Canada.

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