Management at Vale’s Long Harbour construction project expect all site workers back on the job today, after being awarded an injunction against an illegal strike launched at the site Thursday morning.
The order was issued in Supreme Court in St. John’s Thursday afternoon.
Crane operators working at the Long Harbour construction site walked off the job in the early morning hours and kept workers with other trade unions from getting onto the site.
The workers are with the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 904, which represents about 100 people with contractors at the fully unionized worksite, according to an estimate provided by Vale spokesman Bob Carter.
They set up at the main gate, as the morning shift was to get underway, keeping back 1,500 to 2,000 other tradespeople scheduled to come on shift.
While the company made a spokesman available for comments throughout the day, the union offered no official statements as to the reason for the strike, its plans or expectations.
The operating engineers did not return phone calls or respond to emailed requests for an interview from The Telegram prior to deadline.
One iron worker who had been scheduled to go on shift — but chose not to cross the picket line — said the reason for the action was likely a combination of both wages and the potential introduction of workers from the United States.
“Probably they’re going to bring in crane operators now from the (United) States. They’re going to give them $10 more to come in. I guess pay their travel back and forth,” he said, asking not to be identified by name.
“If they’re going to boost the wage for them fellas coming in, why don’t they give the f--king operators $10 more an hour and they’ll have no problem to get operators to go in there.”
Higher wages elsewhere in Canada have been drawing away available Canadian crane operators, he said.
“I think mostly now, with the operators, it just came to a head, it just clashed this morning.”
At the centre of the protest, crane operator Fabian Smith confirmed the root of the problem.
“They say there aren’t enough workers, crane operators, but we know that’s not true,” Fabian Smith said, sat on one of the buses that normally takes him and his fellow crane operators to work.
“Crane operators in this province are the second-lowest paid in the country. They can’t get the workers because many of them won’t move here for lower wages. Why should they? Wages in Alberta weren’t high overnight. Wages went up because of demand. They have the demand here, but aren’t offering the wages to go along with it,” he said.
Smith noted workers from the United States are being trained to come here, but it took him about 5,400 hours of work to become a “red seal.” He wonders if the workers that will come from the States have the same level of skill.
“And there is talk of those people getting more wages than us. It’s crazy.”
He said he thought Newfoundlanders should be able to work in their home province for the same wages they would get in Alberta.
“If the need is here in Newfoundland, why aren’t the wages following? The cost of living has gone up here, so why not our wages?”
Smith also said the living allowance changes that have been put into place since the workers have been there are not good for the workers either. He said since changes to the schedule at the site, the employees end up getting less on a monthly basis, although they still have to pay a full month’s rent where they live while working, whether they are there or not.
“The landlord don’t care if we are on the job or not. They just need their monthly rate.”
“We deserve to be compensated well for this job. We sacrifice a lot to work for these corporations.
“There is no labour shortage. There are people actually quitting their jobs at Long Harbour to go out West. What does that tell you?”
Smith said he and the other workers will continue job action until they get what they want.
“We will be here as long as it takes,” he said. “I am glad to see other workers support us. It makes sense. We are all from ‘Local 709’ (Newfoundland area code) and we are all sticking together.”
To date, all construction jobs at the site of the emerging nickel processing facility have been filled by workers from Newfoundland and Labrador or elsewhere in Canada.
Peak employment upcoming
Vale has made it clear workers from outside of Canada have been considered an option to fill positions, as the project moves to its peak employment later this summer.
The site employs between 4,200 and 4,300 people, Vale spokesman Bob Carter said. It is expected to have 4,500 at peak construction.
Lawyers with Vale responded to the wildcat strike by preparing an application for the courts, to keep the protestors from preventing others from going to work. That application was filed and approved Thursday afternoon.
Carter said the company received no notice the protest was going to be launched.
“It appears the operating engineers are suggesting their wage rates should be increased to be made comperable with Alberta,” he said.
Yet 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 Resource Development Trades Council negotiated the applicable collective agreement in 2009, on behalf of all 16 unions active at the Long Harbour site.
The International Union of Operating Engineers and Local Union 904 is a signatory to that agreement.
“It sets out all the terms and conditions for work — including wages,” Carter said.