The Guardian 6 April, 2005

Collaboration profitable
for bosses in Canada

Kimball Cariou

One of the leading voices for workplace collaboration is the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC). It seems to be growing rapidly in the Alberta oil patch, where its conservative outlook fits in with the right-wing ideology of the oil industry.

But it's not all sweetness and light for workers represented by CLAC. The Edmonton Sun reported recently that "charges have been laid against a pair of major oil-patch firms after two workers were engulfed in a ball of flame while unloading flammable liquid. Canadian Natural Resources Limited (CNRL) and Dial Oilfield Services could face a total of C$3.5 million in fines if convicted in connection with a March 2003, incident."

Two workers were horribly burned when fumes from a chemical they were unloading from a truck suddenly ignited while they were refilling chemical tanks at the CNRL site near Edson. The workers had not been warned that the chemical was highly explosive.

Corporate irresponsibility

CNRL was charged with failing to comply with Occupational Health and Safety regulations, failing to ensure an emergency communication system was in place, failing to properly evaluate the potential for an explosive atmosphere to be created and allowing an ignition source near a flammable substance. Each charge carries a maximum penalty of C$500,000 or six months in jail.

CNRL is one of a growing number of oil industry firms whose employees are Christian Labour Association members.

Speaking in the Alberta Legislature on March 15, provincial New Democrat leader Brian Mason revealed that last December, the Tory cabinet issued an order-in-council changing the rules under which the Horizon oil sands project will be constructed. The change was granted after a request from CNRL, owner of the Horizon project, without consultation with the affected building trades unions.

Mason said that the provision "allows CNRL to unilaterally negotiate terms and conditions of work outside existing collective agreements. Instead of having to negotiate with the building trades unions, the company can use company friendly unions such as CLAC or the non- unionised Merit Contractors. CNRL will be allowed to bring in lower paid foreign temporary workers without first having to demonstrate that there are no qualified Canadian tradespeople available to do the work."

Mason predicted increased job site conflicts, less experienced tradespeople being hired, lower quality work and more accidents.

With oil prices on the rise, more mega projects are underway in Alberta. By the peak of construction in a few years, an estimated 30,000 skilled workers will be on the job on these sites.

Importing skilled workers

The Globe and Mail reported on March 21 that Ledcor Industries Ltd has won approval from the federal government to bring 680 skilled trades people from overseas within the next year. These temporary workers are to be used at Ledcor work sites where it employs members of CLAC, which has been taking jobs away from genuine trade unions in the construction industry.

Paul Walzack of the United Association of Plumbers and Pipe Fitters, told the Globe and Mail that there is no shortage of skilled workers, and that Ledcor and the companies to which it supplies workers are simply looking to hire a more "pliable" work force.

As the energy industry pushes to double oil sands production to two million barrels a day by the turn of the decade, the guarantees of labour peace and extra profits from CLAC contracts are extremely tempting for the corporations.

The Christian Labour Association states that workers have "the right to stay out of unions" and that a workplace is "a community rather than a war zone". During its 53 years of existence, just four strikes have taken place at CLAC worksites.

The bosses find CLAC's philosophy particularly suitable for their constant drive to increase "efficiency". Since CLAC contracts eliminate union jurisdiction in workplaces, all jobs can be done by any worker, regardless of occupational training and skills.

Simplistic appeal

That approach has a simplistic appeal to those who value "harmony" in the workplace. In reality, such collaboration is a tool to allow the employer to increase the rate of exploitation, by maximising the time and efforts of all workers. That's the real truth behind CLAC's smiley-face version of the workplace.

Exploitation is the foundation of the entire private profit system. Capitalist enterprises which fail to generate sufficient surplus value through exploitation of workers ultimately fail, usually at the expense of the workers themselves.

But when competition gets tougher, workers stuck in "rat unions" like CLAC will find themselves virtually defenceless as employers dump the "collaboration" slogans in favour of lower wages and attacks on working conditions.

Abridged from People's Voice newspaper of the Communist Party of Canada

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