Rough Road and Resolve to Ride It

This story is from the Fall 2011 Newsletter. Click here to view the newsletter.


That's CMAW President Jan Noster's view of the current situation in BC for CMAW members and their determination to change it for the better.

Now that the separation dispute with the US-based United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners is finally over, Noster says hopefully the CMAW leadership can begin to focus more intensely on other matters, such as organizing new members and affecting positive change on the construction and related sectors.

ORGANIZING TOP PRIORITY

"We're growing our presence in Alberta," he said. "But we need to grow every sector of the union in order to survive— particularly in the Lower Mainland." Noster points to the two key ways of organizing more members: first, is the preferred traditional "grassroots" method of talking with tradespersons and workers about organizing and joining the union; second, is a fairly common construction practice of "top-down" organizing, where a contractor agrees to sign on to a union contract and standards before hiring anyone and before a project begins.

"We need to do both," he said, "The ideal way is to organize from the grassroots up, getting everyone to join the union and then go for an agreement (with the boss). But the top-down way can work too. We often speak with non-union contractors (to show them the benefits of signing with CMAW). The conversations can go on for years and sometimes end up going nowhere. Other times it turns into a million hours a year of work of the membership of CMAW."

NEW DIGS

He adds that a key part of organizing is training and innovation to match the changing nature of the industry. CMAW's new BC headquarters, located in the 1400 block of Kootenay Street—one block west of Boundary Road and three blocks north of 1st Ave. in Vancouver—will include a new training facility.

Already, courses are planned for scaffolding certification and Oil Sands Safety for the fall. The move from the current 2806 Kingsway location to the new digs will take place in early November.

HOPEFUL WORK SIGNS

The work situation also presents some challenges for CMAW members, Noster says. "The commercial sector is showing signs of life. Work isn't too bad out there, but still spotty."

Across the province, however, Noster says there is now a spike of work activity, since large commercial-industrial projects that were either scrapped or delayed by the fiscal nearcrash in the US in 2008 are now being re-started. "Outside the Lower Mainland it's a bit better now since the 2008 crash in the US. We've actually exceeded the number of hours of work that we had expected this year. The Waneta Dam and the Rio Tinto Alcan expansion of the Kitimat Alcan smelter are looking good for work."

This is in spite of the worsening economy overall—especially in BC, where much of the construction sector has so far been spared the mass layoffs, wage cuts and worsening poverty suffered in most other sectors. A recent Statistics Canada report confirms this, claiming that current 50-year low prime lending rates, both in Canada and across the globe, are fuelling demand for resource commodities and spurring construction development— and are the main buffer between this situation and a global recession.

TOUGH BARGAINING

This sudden burst of activity does not seem to be improving the situation with master bargaining talks between the union leadership and construction contractors, Noster says.

"While we've reached an agreement on a host of issues, we're far apart on the whole matter of jobs and contracting out," he said. "The CLRA (Construction Labour Relations Association— the body that negotiates for many union construction firms in BC) still wants unlimited sub-contracting. That's just unacceptable for us. That's the big stumbling block, unless the CLRA moderates its demand." RAID!?!

Furthermore, the ongoing issue of raiding attempts of CMAW signatory shops by the remnants of the UBCJA in BC—now known as the Canadian Regional Council of Carpenters.

Noster says no one should sign any document or card if they are approached by any Regional Council rep or member, and should notify a steward or CMAW rep immediately.

He adds that many members who have been persuaded to join the UBCJA again are now looking to get back with CMAW, due to the lack of democracy and member input in the International body.

"We know of a situation on Vancouver Island where a group of workers signed up with the (Regional Council/UBCJA) because they would get their RRSP," Noster reports. "Their leadership then negotiated that away without the workers' input and they were left with nothing. They have also agreed to unlimited contracting out.

These are conditions that would make even CLAC blush." He adds that the conduct of the UBCJA Regional Council is similar to the Dutch Reform Church-run socalled Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC), including the lack of member control and democracy, as well as solidarity with and respect for other unions, shows it has given up on labour movement principles and values and therefore can't be effective in defending workers' rights.

The question is why would any legitimate union—even a centralized conservative US-based craft one— pursue such an anti-worker and ultimately self-destructive course. "They have adopted the anti-union 'lowest common denominator' approach," he said. "They hope that if they can sign enough low-standard wall-to-wall collective agreements, employers will flock to them because they are cheap.

That's about the same as what CLAC does. They're not interested in members.

They're interested in dues." Noster stresses once again that anyone approached by a UBCJA or Regional Council member to join them should not sign any card or form and contact their local CMAW rep as soon as possible. "Don't buy any of the BS," he said, adding the members should keep in mind that they do not need to sign any card in order to vote on which union to join. "Don't sign anything you might regret later."