Nova Scotia crane operators strike
By Saul Chernos
By Saul Chernos
Wages are at the heart of a strike that saw crane operators and other heavy machine operators set up picket lines at construction sites across much of Nova Scotia in late October.
Members of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 721 walked off the job after a year of negotiations with the Nova Scotia Construction Labour Relations Association, which represents the unionized industrial commercial institutional construction sector.
“Our contract expired the end of April,” Local 721 president and business manager Joey MacLellan said, describing pay equity with other unionized construction workers as the key demand.
MacLellan said Local 721 members, including roughly 85 crane operators, want parity with deals Ironworkers reached with the NSCLRA earlier this year.
MacLellan expressed frustration with the process. Revisions in the 1980s to the Nova Scotia Trade Union Act limits strikes by any one local to 21 days unless three of the province’s 13 construction trades locals happen to be in a legal strike position at the same time.
In this case, however, all but two locals have already reached agreements, leaving Local 721 and an elevator constructors’ local without full striking rights.
MacLellan says he believes the provision legitimately responded to a series of back-to-back strikes that significantly disrupted construction activity in Nova Scotia. “This was put in place in order to try to correct that and get things back under control,” MacLellan says.
While the provision forces striking members back to work, it puts into play binding conciliation where each side appoints a representative, with a third member either mutually agreed to or appointed by the provincial labour ministry to act as chair. The panel can ultimately impose a settlement, though these must be consistent with settlements achieved by the other locals.
The measure indeed tempered job action. Local 721 hadn’t gone on strike since 1989 except for a weekend-long picket three years ago that started late one Friday night and was resolved by Sunday.
Now, though, MacLellan says some adjustment is needed towards the unions because the 13 locals each have individual needs and priorities and there’s little chance any three of them will have simultaneous contract issues.
This time, for instance, Local 721 members are seeking wage parity but are generally satisfied with union hall hiring, dispatch rules and other “language” issues, whereas for other locals it might be the polar opposite.
“Getting them all to agree or be in a position together and be willing to stay together can be very difficult,” MacLellan says, adding that labour relations needs to weigh employers and workers equally.
“You have to keep it in perfect balance in order for things to work. The scales were once tilted way too far towards the unions, so they corrected it, but then it continued and it’s now tilted way too far to the management side.”
NSCLRA president Robert Shepherd says its wage proposal “is consistent with the majority of the other trade unions that we already have signed new collective agreements with.”
Shepherd said the 21-day strike rule provides stability for the construction industry. “That’s what our legislation allows for and we’re supportive of that as an association.”
If a settlement isn’t reached by Nov. 14, when the 21-day period elapses, the parties have seven days to appoint a conciliation panel.
Meanwhile, Local 721 members are picketing various job sites. “Most of the work that pertains to our trade is in the Halifax area so it’s concentrated there,” MacLellan says. Affected projects include Queen’s Marque on the waterfront and the Curve/YMCA, both mixed-use developments.
Northern Pulp in Pictou and other sites across Nova Scotia are also affected, with the exception of Cape Breton, where Local 721 members recently signed a separate collective agreement.
MacLellan says he knows of at least one non-member brought in to operate, and Shepherd confirmed there are non-union operators in Nova Scotia. However, work at some sites is proceeding without heavy lifting.