Workers Oppose Blatant Union Busting in Alberta

Workers Oppose Blatant Union Busting in Alberta – Peggy Morton –

On April 13, four hundred workers represented by United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401 at the Wapasu Creek Lodge, a massive 5,174-room work camp north of Fort McMurray, were issued layoff notices after voting 95 per cent to reject the employer Civeo’s demands for 20 per cent cuts to wages, clawbacks of benefits, deep cuts to guaranteed hours, and a variety of cutbacks on basic support Wapasu workers need to do their jobs. The demands from the company come two years into a three-and-a-half-year contract.

The workers provide food, housekeeping, reception and front desk services, maintenance, and security for the facility which houses and feeds workers from remote oil sands projects, including the Imperial Oil Kearl Lake oil sands mine. The workers kept the camps operating through the pandemic, under the most difficult conditions. The workers point out that major projects like Kearl Lake, with a production capacity of 263,000 barrels/day of bitumen, cannot operate without Wapasu. Not only does it house the fly-in/fly-out workforce at Kearl Lake and other projects but also the workforce for the annual turnarounds/shutdowns which are now underway to carry out maintenance. They do all that is necessary to keep the work camps functioning, but the arrogant Texas-based monopoly has now decided to dispose of them in order to deprive workers of the wages and working conditions they have established. To do this, Civeo plans to contract out the management and operation of the lodge to Aramark.

The union filed an unfair labour practices complaint with the Alberta Labour Relations Board (ALRB) on December 2, after the company demanded concessions while a collective agreement was in place. When the workers said No! and were served with layoff notices, the union filed applications for interim relief and a true/common employer and/or successor declaration on April 27. The first would stop the layoffs until the entire case was heard, and the second would establish that Civeo remained the actual employer, or that successor rights existed and the collective agreement would remain in place. Local 401 also filed for access to the worksite.

The hearing on the April 27 application for interim relief began on May 16. On day two, when only two of 25 expected witnesses from the union had been heard, Civeo put forward a motion to summarily dismiss the union’s application, and the ALRB agreed. The ALRB then declared that there was no available time to continue the hearing prior to June 8 when the workers will be laid off. The union’s full submission will not even be heard until August, two months after the notorious global privatizing profiteer Aramark has been installed as the new employer. Until then the workers must find new ways of affirming their rights as it is clear that the Labour Relations Board cannot be relied on to do it for them.

The ALRB ignored as irrelevant the fact that a company whose sole business is the ownership and operation of work camps would be contracting out its business to a competitor. Nevermind that in 2016, when the NDP was in power in Alberta, Civeo did the same thing when it demanded a 44 per cent wage cut from the 170 workers at Beaver River Lodge, which the workers also refused. Civeo then laid everyone off under a fraudulent “contract flip” where it rebranded itself as a new company, and contracted the work out to itself, replacing the workers with low-paid non-union workers. The ALRB did not even wait until Local 401 had put forward its caseto make its decision.

In its decision, the ALRB stated that it only has authority to grant orders which are “preservative,” not “remedial” and that to grant the union’s application would be “remedial.”

Webster’s Online Dictionary provides these definitions: “Remedial: Affording a remedy; intended for a remedy or for the removal of an evil: as, to adopt remedial measures; tending to cure or restore to health.” “Preserve” is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as: “to maintain (something) in its original or existing state.”

Local 401’s applications to the ALRB were precisely to preserve what the workers have established in the form of their union, collective agreement and standards. Many of the workers at Wapasu have worked there for many years. They fought to organize themselves and establish wages, working conditions and benefits acceptable to them. The Indigenous workers fought to uphold their rights including a space to conduct ceremony and other recognition. Granting the interim relief application would mean they would keep their jobs and preserve the wages and working conditions they have accomplished with their union. However, the ALRB has made its order based on precedents established by successive governments. These affirm self-serving interests of the monopolies to do as they please while the workers are limited by juridical rulings which are bad for the workers who do the work, bad for the workers the camps serve and bad for society itself.

The ALRB’s refusal of the application for interim relief sets the stage for the board to also find that the “new contractor,” whoever that may be, will not be bound by the collective agreement, obligated to retain the workers, or do anything else to preserve their livelihoods and uphold their rights.

This is something which brings utmost shame to Canada and the claims of governments to protect rights and not permit forms of human trafficking. Of course, governments are not just at the disposal of the narrow private interests which dare treat labour in this manner. They have in fact been taken over by these narrow private interests and spend their time passing laws to let these interests act with impunity, on one hand, and limit the workers to not being able to do anything about it.

Taking collective action to end this state of affairs has become the greatest challenge facing the workers’ movement, especially when some of the union leaders concur with the governments in question by saying that serving these narrow private interests is needed to preserve jobs, attract investment, and the like. It is also the case that unions are being attacked and either gotten rid of or exchanged for organizations formed by the employers to keep the workers divided and in line. Legally protected anti-worker practices have become increasingly blatant. A modern society requires new ways of mobilizing and organizing in a manner that favours the workers. There is no option but to take this up. Local 401 has been mobilizing the workers who live in the camps to join the fight, to stand as one and not permit the vicious attack on the workers who make sure the camps run smoothly and also according to public health requirements which is a big issue when thousands of people are in and out of work camps.

When the security of the workers who run the camps is so deeply impacted, this directly affects the workers who live in the camps. They will also be severely negatively impacted. Life is hard enough living in isolation in the wilderness without also having to contend with the inevitable decline in the standards at the camp when the workers with years of experience are tossed out on the street.

Uphold the Dignity of Labour!
Our Security Lies in the Fight for the Rights of All!

Information on Civeo

Civeo calls itself “Workforce Accommodations and Hospitality Specialists.” It is a Texas-based monopoly which owns and operates 20 work camps (or what the company calls lodges) in Alberta — 17 of which are in the Athabasca oil sands region, as well as camps in Australia and the U.S. Canada is Civeo’s major source of revenue. Civeo also runs camps owned by the oil sands monopolies, or mining companies in Australia, where it contracts to provide services. It also sets up temporary camps at major construction sites such as the Coastal GasLink pipeline.

Civeo was originally a Canadian company, formed in the Peace River area in 1977 as PTI Group to rent out mobile offices and dormitories. It later added catering and housekeeping services.

In 2001, PTI Group was acquired by Oil States International, Inc. of Houston.

The Oil States International Inc. (OSII) website states that the corporation “is a global provider of manufactured products and services used in the drilling, completion, subsea, production and infrastructure sectors of the oil and natural gas industry, as well as in the industrial and military sectors. The company’s manufactured products include highly engineered capital equipment as well as products consumed in the drilling, well construction and production of oil and natural gas.” The company also acquired a significant share of work camps or lodges housing workers at remote oil, gas, pipeline construction and mining sites, both permanent and temporary modular housing.

In 2014, OSII spun off its accommodation business as Civeo, carrying out what it called a “self-directed redomiciling,” moving Civeo’s headquarters to Calgary in order to take advantage of lower tax rates in Canada. “Redomiciling” is a measure permitted by the U.S. tax code for companies that do most of their business in a foreign jurisdiction.

Since that time, Civeo has aggressively expanded its share of the market for housing workers at remote sites. In 2018 Civeo purchased Noralta Lodge, one of Alberta’s major oil sands accommodation companies for $367 million. Noralta had 11 lodges comprised of over 5,700 owned rooms and 7,900 total rooms. Civeo has also expanded its presence in Australia, acquiring Action Industrial Catering in 2019 as well as new contracts to operate a 1,540-room facility for an unnamed oil sands operator in Alberta, as well as new contracts in Australian mining camps.

Civeo now controls about 30 per cent of all work camp facilities measured by rooms, while its competitors together have about one-third, and the rest is owned by the monopolies and cartels operating in the oil and gas and mining sectors.