Alberta's labour movement was born in the in the coal fields and on coal-powered railways. When oil and natural gas were discovered, coal was displaced for home heating and the railways, and a new trade-union era opened.
While trade unions may have been grudgingly accepted as a fact of life in some sectors, for the most part, Alberta's energy industry has been hostile terrain for organizers. Nowhere was this more true than in the new oil and gas industry, which set the agenda for Alberta governments ever since Imperial Oil's Leduc No. 1 blew out in 1947.
Anti-union policy migrated across the border with the U.S. oil multinationals that quickly snapped up ownership of the rich oilfields. Wherever union organizers went, they met a wall of hostility and even violence, particularly in the upstream portions of the industry where resources are extracted, as opposed to where the resources are refined.
Where trade unions saw an opening, such as in the refineries and petrochemical plants, companies turned to a made-in-America solution – "company unionism," a clever strategy invented by William Lyon Mackenzie King, one of Canada's most nimble politicians and twice our Prime Minister.
King was the industrial-relations genius most responsible for introducing "soft human-resource management" strategies into Canada. When the Laurier government was defeated in 1911, he lost his job as Canada's first Deputy Minister of Labour. He was later retained by the late John D. Rockefeller to mend industrial relations after the Ludlow Massacre of 1914 in Colorado, where the National Guard had turned machine guns on strikers and torched their tent villages.
King advised Rockefeller to appease workers by giving them Christmas turkeys and dancing with their wives at social functions. As well, he proferred in-house councils as a way to avoid future strife. These employer-sponsored "company unions" (also known as "joint industrial councils" or "donkey councils") came to Canada with oil and have remained a feature of the industry to this day.
Eugene Mitchell, organizer with the Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW) and former secretary-treasurer of the Alberta Federation of Labour explained how company unions were able to monopolize the petrochemical industry. "They hired people who travelled from one plant to the other, forming company unions. All of a sudden, meetings were called, constitutions put in place and cards signed... Anyway, we didn't give up. It didn't take long before that company union signed a sweetheart deal with the company. Another year went by and they had to get a new contract."
Organizing in Alberta
C. Neil Reimer, OCAW's Canadian director and first leader of the Alberta NDP was there from the beginning. He began work in 1942 at the age of 20 in the Consumers Co-operative Refinery in Regina, where he organized Canada's first oil workers' local under the Canadian Congress of Labour (now the CLC) - the United Oil Workers of Canada Local 1.
Reimer was assigned to Alberta in 1951 to organize Alberta's fledgling petroleum industry for the Oil Workers' International Union (later to become OCAW). In an interview with the Alberta Labour History Institute, he recalled one particularly chilly instance. "My wife went to a welcome party in our block. They all were there and welcomed her. When they asked: 'Who does your husband work for?' she proudly said, 'The Oil Workers International Union.' That's the last time she was invited to coffee."
The first local he successfully organized was at Liquid Carbonic, giving the Oil Workers voice and vote in both the Alberta Federation of Labour and the Edmonton Labour Council. Next came CIL and Celanese, the latter a tremendously anti-labour U.S. company that did not have another organized plant in the world. Reimer had started by trying to organize at the BA Oil Refinery, but he lost even though he had a 70-pre-cent sign-up. Those who voted for the union quit the company en masse, and went to CIL and Celanese, providing a strong union base there.
Opposition at CIL came when the United Mineworkers of America claimed jurisdiction for the whole energy industry. However, a CLC convention in Montreal extended jurisdiction to allow the Oil Workers plants such as this. Said Reimer: "We won the vote there, a real good start to organize the industry. With that kind of record, I was appointed director of the union."
In April 1980, delegates from OCAW, the Canadian Chemical Workers and an independent Quebec union of textile workers met in Montreal to form the Energy & Chemical Workers (ECWU), a Canadian union headquartered in Edmonton. Whereas breaking from American parent organizations was fractious for some unions, it was peaceful for the OCAW. U.S. leaders gave Canadians everything that was owed, continued a common strike fund, and co-operated on a number of issues, including occupational health and safety.
Enter the oil sands
The oil industry's anti-union stance was carried into the oil sands when multinationals turned attention there in the 1970s. This was demonstrated most clearly in the Syncrude consortium headed by Frank Spragins, an affable Mississippian who was originally sent to Canada by the U.S. War Office in 1942 to search for oil.
Construction was union; the challenge to the union hiring halls would come later. However, from 1973 until production began in 1978, Syncrude declared an intention to operate non-union and, in spite of numerous organizing attempts and challenges at Alberta's Labour Relations Board and the courts, has remained non-union to this day. The Alberta government went so far as to place the whole northeast corner of the province under a commissioner to ensure that community activists, trade unionists, environmentalists and other undesirable elements did not interfere with these plans. He was to act as a planning co-ordinator with power to trump a number of regulatory authorities.
According to Reg Basken, long-time OCAW representative and later president of the merged ECWU: "Syncrude was run by Imperial Oil, and they had a fundamental opposition to unions. As Jack Armstrong, the CEO of Imperial Oil, used to say: 'We love unions as long as they're somebody else's.' "
Said Basken: "We tried an arrangement with the building trades and the Steelworkers. We tried it on our own. We set up a company council, so we could affiliate it later, but nothing worked... You can buy a union off if you have enough money. They always had enough money, and bought employees off from joining the union."
Suncor was another story. OCAW stayed with it from the time Sun Oil took over the Great Canadian Oil Sands project in 1963, working with an independent oil workers' group, which affiliated with the CLC in 1973 as the McMurray Independent Oil Workers (MIOW). An affiliation agreement with the ECWU had been negotiated by the time workers were locked out by the company in 1986.
According to MIOW president Dan Comrie, Suncor used collapsing oil prices to take the union to the wall. Open warfare broke out when the company turned down a "stand pat" union offer on May 1, instead serving lockout notice. MIOW responded with strike notice and, on the same day, affiliated with the ECWU. The company immediately obtained court injunctions to limit pickets and sued the ECWU for $5 million for disrupting production. On May 8, almost 200 RCMP officers accompanied with dogs appeared at the picket lines, even though the union said it would obey the injunction.
"There was total shock that we were not only fighting the company, the government and the courts, but also police from across the province," said ECWU staffer Ian Thorne. "Members turned out to walk the lines en masse and, when led away by police, were replaced by wives and other members."
A total of 1,050 families were on strike; 152 arrests were made. When a 'back-to-work' tactic by the company failed in early October, Suncor met with ECWU director Basken to negotiate a settlement with mid-term wage increases, employee-assistance programs and a change in industrial-relations strategy.
Health and safety
The upstream oil and gas industry has always been one of the most dangerous places to work. Alberta was the first province in Canada to adopt a comprehensive Occupational Health & Safety Act in 1976, but was also the only jurisdiction not to mandate joint worksite health and safety committees; unions would have to negotiate health and safety. Not for the rigs, however, because the union never broke through barriers to organizing.
Reimer explains that the union made health and safety a priority for national bargaining and breakthroughs in downstream plants – Celanese and refineries – were won on this issue. "We named representatives to health and safety committees in the '60s, before health and safety ever became an issue with the majority of the people negotiating in Canada, and far ahead of the U.S.," he said.
Canadian unions demanded the "right-to-know" about hazards posed by the substances employed in production. The Canadian government finally responded in 1986 with the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS), which fell far short of union demands, but at least required suppliers to provide the required information. Alberta did not enact WHMIS until a year later, however, and even then, did not incorporate such key demands such as worker participation and full education. The ECWU took the issue further, negotiating a deal with the Petro-Canada refinery in Edmonton in 1988 to check off three cents an hour for every worker to finance union-sponsored education and training in the health and safety field.
Boom-and-bust labour relations
Alberta's "oil-booms" are often misnamed – they are really construction booms. The recession Canada went through in the early 1980s was deeper and more long-lived in Alberta because of its heavy reliance on energy. With the downturn in Alberta's oilpatch, construction fell precipitously and contractors tookadvantage of a huge reserve of unemployed workers by employing a strategy that combined lockouts with "spin-off"companies to unilaterally terminate collective agreements in the industry.
By law, expired collective agreements usually remain "bridged"until a new one is settled. They may be terminated only by strike or lockout. So, when construction agreements expired in 1984, the Contractors' Association implemented a "24-Hour Lockout", locking out their workers and declaring, 24 hours later, that a collective agreement no longer existed. The same jobs were then offered to workers at vastly reduced wages and benefits. As a second tactic, they set up "spin-off companies" and transferred work to these non-unionized companies.
PCL, Cana and Ellis-Don – all of Alberta's big contractors were involved, virtually wiping out collective agreements in the construction industry, and leaving workers at the tender mercy of contractors for their wages, benefits and conditions. Said Brad Bulloch, business manager for Calgary's Carpenters' Local 2103: "One day, you were working for a union company with a full benefit package and full rate, and 24 hours later you were working for a non-union company at what I figured to be a 65-per-cent cut. It was devastating to anybody that had a mortgage, a car payment, or a family, such as me. We lost members, and some lost their lives through suicide. There were many marriage breakups, people lost their homes, lost their vehicles. In 1984, people were selling their homes for $1 to get out of the liabilities."
Bill McGillivray, business agent for the Medicine Hat Local of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America (UBCJA) added: "We got hammered, and the government did nothing about it. They locked us out and said: 'This is what you're going to get.' Pay went from $18 something an hour down to $12 an hour."
Construction workers responded with the 'Dandelions'; just like the tough weeds, they defied eradication. While their unions worked through conventional channels, unemployed workers with little prospect of decent work began to organize. Dandelions appeared everywhere, at conferences of construction contractors, and on signs on lawns and windows, adding energy to the demands of the labour movement for job creation and workers' rights. They joined other organizations in Solidarity Alberta, and even appeared at farm gates, where farmers were being threatened with eviction.
Immediately after his election in 1984, Brian Mulroney began to cement a free-trade deal with the United States. It happened in 1985, at the 'Shamrock Summit' at Montebello, Que., where he joined U.S. President Reagan in singing When Irish Eyes Are Smiling - "the single most demeaning moment in the entire political history of Canada's relations with the United States," according to Canadian historian Jack Granatstein.
AFL President Dave Werlin warned the 1986 AFL Convention: "With no mandate from the Canadian voters, they are preparing to sell out our Canadian resources, our Canadian jobs, our Canadian culture, our Canadian social services, our Canadian standard of living, and Canadian sovereignty – all of it served on a platter to the U.S.-based multinational companies and their disloyal, greedy, junior partners in Canada ."
The Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (FTA), struck late in 1987, eliminated barriers to trade in goods and services between Canada and the United States. Two countries that already had more trade between them than any other two countries on earth - roughly $150 billion worth of goods a year – would be brought even closer together. The effect of this and other free-trade agreements that followed was that the U.S. was given "national status" concerning our energy resources. This means we cannot stem shipments of energy products during times of domestic shortfalls, nor can we vary terms of sales to serve our own national interests should circumstances change.
Anti-trade deal rallies organized by the Pro-Canada Network in 1988 attracted thousands from church, community, aboriginal, trade unions and even attracting leading economists and industrial leaders. Lobbying was so strong and intense that the Tories might have lost the "Free Trade Election" of November 1988, had it not been for the multi-million dollar advertising blitz launched by some of Canada's largest corporations under the umbrella of the Alliance for Opportunity and Trade.
Mulroney was re-elected and the agreement ratified on October 4, 1988, coming into effect on January 1, 1989. Three years later a North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) brought Mexico into the trading bloc, and jobs began moving out of Canada.
Alberta's petrochemical industry - created from nothing by the policies of Premier Peter Lougheed - soon began to feel the effects. Dave Coles, current president of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, summarized the new reality when petrochemical plants such as Edmonton's Celanese started closing down soon after. "I think the situation in the petrochemical industry in Alberta is no different than taking raw logs and shipping them out. ... When the government approved the Alliance Pipeline (which sent raw natural gas to Minnesota for processing instead of having it processed in Alberta),it killed the manufacturing sector. We lost
thousands of workers here at Celanese and many other places across Alberta. The natural gas converting industry was killed, while just 37 jobs were created to run the pipeline. Chicago got the jobs, Alberta got the pollution."
(Winston Gereluk is vice-president of the Alberta Labour History Institute (ALHI). It brings together trade unionists, academics, labour archivists, political activists and writers to preserve and tell the story of Alberta's working people and their organizations. Since its founding in 1998, it has interviewed more than 300 leading trade unionists and community activists; preserved and archived records, photos and publications; produced Alberta Labour History Calendars; hosted Labour History Days; provided material for city and provincial centennial celebrations; and made presentations to trade unions, schools and other organizations. In 2007, ALHI partnered with the Alberta Federation of Labour to provide an historical and educational foundation to the centennial the AFL will celebrate in 2012. Visit ALHI at www.labourhistory.ca.)
1 This and other background information taken from Roberts, Wayne. (1990) Cracking the Canadian Formula: The Making of the Energy and Chemical Workers Union. Toronto: Between the Lines.
2 Alberta Labour History Institute interview with Eugene Mitchell, October 29, 2002
3 All Reimer quotes from Alberta Labour History Institute interview with Neil Reimer, July 22, 2002.
4 Roberts, p. 163.
5 See Pratt, Larry (1976). The Tar Sands: Syncrude and the Politics of Oil. Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers.
6 All Basken quotes from Alberta Labour History Institute interview with Reg Basken, May 20, 2005.
7 Alberta Labour History Institute meeting, Ft. McMurray, October 20, 2005.
8 Roberts, Wayne. (1990) Cracking the Canadian Formula: The Making of the Energy and Chemical Workers Union. Toronto: Between the Lines. p.142.
9 Alberta Labour History Institute interview with Ian Thorne, March 8, 2005.
10 Alberta Labour History Institute Interview with Reg Basken, May 20, 2005.
11 Roberts, p. 219
12 Interview with Brad Bulloch, November 16, 2005.
13 Alberta Labour History Institute Interview with Bill McGillivray, June 3, 2005
14 Will Ferguson, Will, Why I Hate Canadians. (Vancouver, BC: Douglas & McIntyre, 1997, 112-3
15 Alberta Federation of Labour, Executive Council Report, 30th Annual Convention, 1986.
16 Alberta Labour History Institute interview with Dave Coles, September 24, 2007.