British Columbia: One "Long, Hot, Nasty Summer" Coming Up
British Columbia's reputation for labour strife has been reinforced by recent developments. B.C. labour unions have responded angrily to stringent economic measures taken last year by the Bennett government. Some B.C. union spokesmen warn of more militant action to come.
The forest products industry, mainstay of the province's economy, is in shambles as the B.C. pulp and paper industry has locked out 13,000 pulp- and paper-mill workers for the past two months. The unions involved, the Canadian Paperworkers Union and the Pulp, Paper & Woodworkers of Canada, have reacted by putting up their own pickets and in turn preventing about 15,000 logging and sawmill employees, members of the International Woodworkers of America (IWA), from working. The locked-out unions are demanding a COLA clause, which the industry refuses to give since it would be a substantial addition to what IWA members received in their contract. The closure of 20 pulp- and paper-mills in B.C. since February 2 has had a ripple effect throughout the B.C. economy. For example, B.C. Rail began laying off employees in February as carloadings decreased by 35%. During the first month of the lockout the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate (which does not include those involved in labour disputes) rose to 14.5%, and Richard McAlary, chief economist for the B.C. Central Credit Union, worries that this rise also indicates a serious decline in the rate at which new jobs are being created in B.C.'s uncertain environment. On March 30 the B.C. government ordered the pulp and paper unions back to work, and the unions finally complied on April 10.
More confrontation in the construction industry
The hostility between the B.C. government and the unions is coming to a head in the construction industry. At issue is the growth of the non-union construction sector and the decision by the government to allow non-union contractors to bid on government jobs. Union leaders view this as a "declaration of war on organized labour," but Chuck McVeigh, president of the Construction Labour Relations Association, claims that B.C.'s unionized construction sector is declining simply because of prohibitive costs in the face of strong competition from non-union firms. He reported that in 1983 about $600-million worth of work, which previously would have gone to unionized firms, was done by non-union contractors. McVeigh said: "Our basic position is that if the unionized sector is going to survive then we have to be productive and to be productive we have to be competitive and to be competitive we have to lower our labor costs" (Vancouver Sun, January 25, 1984).
During the month of March, controversy centred on the False Creek building project in downtown Vancouver, a $17-million contract which was awarded to the non-union firm, 3.C. Kerkhoff & Sons Ltd. The construction unions responded by picketing and harassing the non-union workers in defiance of a Labour Relations Board ruling that the pickets were illegal. In the end, union workers stopped picketing in compliance with a Supreme Court order handed down on March 23.
Looming beyond the False Creek controversy is the unions' insistence that they be awarded all work on the 1986 Expo site. Allowing non-union bids on this site, said Arthur Kube, president of the 210-thousand-member B.C. Federation of Labour, is "the first effort on the part of the provincial Government to declare this province non-union and force the whole thing into a deunionization mode. That is an attack on the total trade union movement" (Globe and Mail, March 17, 1984). Premier Bennett, however, has threatened to cancel the entire Expo project if the construction unions will not agree to work alongside non-union labour. (On April 13 he announced that Expo 86 will go ahead.)
Meanwhile, unions are still smarting from a recent Labour Board decision prohibiting union picketing on a construction jobsite at the Vancouver General Hospital. At stake in this issue was the right of union workers to refuse to work alongside non-union workers. The B.C. Labour Relations Board ruled that the project was not part of an integrated site and therefore the so-called non-affiliation clauses did not apply.
Other sectors are feeling the tension too. Pacific Press, publisher of Vancouver's two daily newspapers, was struck by its employees on March 29. Teachers and civil servants continue to rail against a ruling under the B.C. restraint program which ties wage increases to government allotments. The ruling overturned an arbitration award in favour of the public sector employees, and calls into guestion the validity of the arbitration process. Crown-owned B.C. Hydro has awarded a $7-million contract to a non-union company, which, it is expected, will hire workers in Alberta, although 70% of B.C. members in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers remain unemployed.