Attacking the trades in Alberta

K Turner reports from the Boilermakers’ Lodge 146 picket line at CESSCO Fabrication and Engineering in Edmonton.

There has been very little coverage of the CESSCO Fabrication and Engineering lockout of the Boilermakers’ Lodge 146.

There’s an Edmonton Journal article, linked to on Lodge 146’s website, that does a good job at getting the official positions of the company and the union: the collective agreement expired almost 2.5 years ago and the two parties couldn’t come to an agreement, as CESSCO (a manufacturer of industrial machinery used in the oil patch) wants to cut wages, reduce pensions, and eliminate seniority.

While this is useful information for getting a superficial understanding of the lockout, it is missing the point of view of the workers themselves. So I went to the picket line to talk to some members of Lodge 146 and get their perspective.

Two things became clear to me through the conversations I had on the picket line that day: the jobs at CESSCO, along with CESSCO’s reputation, are being destroyed; and an already dangerous job is becoming increasingly unsafe.

The lockout

On June 20th, 2020, CESSCO CEO David Hummel issued a notice of lockout to all CESSCO employees represented by Lodge 146. The lockout began on June 28th and picketing began on June 29th. CESSCO wasn’t set to resume operations until July 6th, but workers were already aware of CESSCO’s intention to bring in scab labor.

On the afternoon of July 8th, I sat with three members of Lodge 146 at CESSCO’s north entrance, along 75th Avenue and 99th Street in Edmonton, Alberta. This entrance is where security has been escorting scabs in and out. Off to the side of the entrance, there is a large, inflatable fat cat wearing a top hat. In one hand, the cat holds a sack of money. The other hand is wrapped around a worker’s neck.

One boilermaker pointed to the CESSCO building on the other side of the fence, “This Local here, Local 146, was founded on the floor of the CESSCO shop [in 1948]. That’s what makes this an insult to injury.” A more senior member of Lodge 146 chimed in, “It’s fucking terrible what they’re doing to this place.”

Mack Walker, assistant business manager with Lodge 146, says that that in the last 5 years, there have not been any significant raises or increases. A more junior member added, “We’re not asking for much [in these negotiations], just want the same shit, really.” Instead, CESSCO came to the bargaining table with rollbacks: reduced pay, elimination of seniority, and pensions that would be reduced to less than half of what they are currently getting.

“Where that pension money came from over the years was off wage packages. So one year, they put in 75 cents – instead of taking a raise, they put that into pensions. Over the years, you got up to being one of the best [pensions] in Edmonton in these shops. It’s not like these companies are just giving $3 an hour. It’s coming off wage packages.”

What CESSCO is trying to introduce is a pension based on a percentage of gross income. In the past, everyone’s pension was earning $3.40 per hour. Under CESSCO’s proposal, pension contributions would be 4% of gross income: “a journeyman here, we did the math, would only get $1.60 per hour… A first year apprentice would get, like, 80-cents per hour.”

Speedups and safety

Over the course of our conversation, the health and safety concerns became clear. CESSCO management has been telling workers that they are losing projects to the competition. Because of this, they purposefully underbid how long a project will take, just to get work in the door. As a result, everything is rushed: “Everything here,” one worker said, “I can tell you right now, is so underbid. Everything is always a rush job, and it’s like, ‘how? We are trying.’”

In one case, a project was bid to take just under 10 hours, but it took closer to 18 hours to complete. “We had to move it, we had to place it here, we had to switch guys, we had to take out the machines that didn’t work, put in ones that did work. And so, at the end of the day, we finished the job and, yeah, you guys may have lost money on it, but how is that our fault?”

Another Lodge 146 member, out to support his union brothers, added, “In all these shops, you could never do a job good enough or fast enough, it’s always pile more on your plate, hurry up, hurry up.” He continued, “From what I’ve heard – I don’t work here, but what I’ve heard – they’ve been pushing guys for speed, these new managers, and there’s lots of fuck-ups now. We’re talking 6-digit fuck-ups.”

It’s because of this, he believes, that CESSCO is able to claim they’re not making money: “Maybe if you slowed down, paid attention to the quality of the work on the first go-around… It might cost a little more, but it costs way more when you gotta rework shit two or three times over. In the end, you gotta transfer that cost to the client or you eat it yourself. Obviously they’re trying to keep the clients happy, so they’re probably eating it.”

I asked about the health and safety issues this must be creating. A member of Lodge 146 responded, “They’ll tell you safety is #1, but that’s just their first way of axing you if something goes wrong” – referring to disciplining workers for safety violations.

Supporters of Boilermakers Lodge 146 at the picket before 6:00 am, June 6 2020

The right tradesperson for the job?

In the past, workers who came out of CESSCO had an excellent reputation, said the men on the picket line. “This used to be the spot where good guys [worked]. You want a good production welder, and he left the shop to come out to the field” — the oil and gas projects in the north of the province – “if you got a guy who spent a decade [at CESSCO] welding, that guy was the go-to guy to get things done. They had a pedigree here.”

When asked about the scabs currently working, one member speculated they were likely journeymen welders, so there wasn’t much they could actually do. Boilermakers cut, shape, and form vessels – all things they learn in their trade that would not be taught in the welding curriculum. I asked if they thought the scabs would be expected to do all the work of a boilermaker, and they responded the scabs will likely be expected to do everything.

There are, however, some members of Lodge 146 who scabbed. Before the lockout, someone was even petitioning to have Lodge 146 decertified from CESSCO. The union has a charges process for scabbing, and has been using it. Fines have been levied, but at least one person got around that by choosing to have an RRSP instead of the union pension, as the fine would have come out of his pension. The case has been sent to union headquarters in Kansas City, Kansas.

When asked what would happen to members of Lodge 146 who crossed the picket line, the more senior member said, “You know what? 30-years, I’ve never seen it happen… I’ve never seen someone cross the line like that and go to work when there are brothers on the outside of the fence…” Another member added, “Brother brother, at the hall. On the job, fuck ’em all. They’re only good union men when it’s convenient for them.”

The attack on labor in Alberta

In Alberta (as well as Nova Scotia and Quebec), boilermakers are considered a compulsory trade. This means that, by law, in order to work in the trade a person must be a certified journeyperson or a registered apprentice in the trade. Compulsory trades involve work where public and worker safety need to be closely monitored; as per the guidelines set by the Provincial Apprenticeship and Certification Board, workplaces require a certain ratio of apprentices to journeypersons and a journeyperson must oversee all hours and skills of an apprentice.

When asked about the continuation of the boilermakers as a compulsory trade, one member was not optimistic: “I think Jason Kenney wants to squish it. I don’t know… I don’t really want to get too much into politics here, but I have a feeling they want everything done for cheaper […] and anything they can do to replace us with somebody cheaper, they’re gonna maybe go through that avenue.”

The broader context here is Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and the United Conservative Party’s attacks on labor, including for the sake of propping up the oil and gas industry in the province.

Bill 1, The Critical Infrastructure Defence Act, was introduced earlier in 2020. It threatens large fines for people or groups who block so-called “critical infrastructure.” This includes roads, pipelines, and railways. This bill appeared after a flurry of solidarity rail blockades went up in order show support for the Wet’suwet’en, who are blocking the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline through their unceded (First Nations) territory.

Bill 32, Restoring Balance in Alberta’s Workplaces Act, so named under the pretense that the former New Democratic Party government had allowed unions to gain too much power, was introduced in early July 2020. The goal of this bill is to “restore balance” between businesses and unions by limiting how unions can spend their money and preventing the blocking or delaying of scabs from crossing a picket line, and even preventing workers from picketing their workplace.

The Building Trades of Alberta, which represents 18 skilled trades unions (Lodge 146 is not part of it), released a press release in support of Bill 32. Specifically, it was in support of Division 7.1 of the Bill, which they say will “allow greater competition in the way project collective agreements in the province are negotiated.”

So, for the sake of “competition” in collective agreement negotiations, we have a body of unions that would support not being allowed to picket. Clearly there is a lot of work to be done if these groups are willing to sell out their members’ rights.

What will it take?

When asked what it will take to win the current struggle, workers on the picket line were not optimistic: “Maybe these people that they brought in to ‘save the day’ aren’t going to be as good or as fast as they thought they would be. So hopefully it will overrun costs and it will come back and bite them.” Another member added, “Is there going to be a winner or a loser? I don’t know. No one actually wins in these situations.”

“I’m pretty cynical,” a younger member said, “I think their goal is to probably starve us out. It’s lose-lose regardless. This place is doomed. I’m sorry. I hope that one day it will get back on its feet, but I don’t know… I don’t know how they’re going to do it. It’s almost a perfect storm. There’s a pandemic, a global recession, so it’s like, ‘take it or leave it.’”

“Before this ever happened, I remember seeing on a white board, ‘There are two options’ – I don’t know who wrote it – there was ‘work’ and ‘don’t’. And I was like, ‘I wonder what that fucking means?’ Now, looking back, I’m like, ‘you can either work and be like these scabs, or sit out here.’ You’re going to give us these ultimatums… we’re just tradespeople. We just want to do our jobs, you know? Ah, man… I feel nauseous just talking about this place.”

A daring escape

Shortly after 4:30 pm, one of the security guards went up to the gate and jiggled the lock. He went back to the security truck and got bolt cutters, went back to the lock, cut it, and opened the gate. Two rental vans with tinted windows appeared and began to creep toward the exit.

The boilermakers and their supporters lined up at the edge of the CESSCO property and began walking back and forth. There was an agreement to only hold up the vehicles for 5 minutes each, which was deemed a “reasonable” amount of time – as required by current law. A security guard started a timer. There was a fear that going over would lead to reprisals from the Alberta Labour Relations Board.

Once the time limit was up, a security guard got in front of the van. He started backing up in order to clear space for the van to start moving, albeit slowly, through the crowd that had gathered on 75th Avenue. The picket then re-formed at the property line to repeat the process for the second van. Unfortunately for this second van, once they made it onto the Avenue, there was an accident between two other vehicles, as well as someone learning how to make a U-turn, slow and steady.

While I don’t doubt that the security guards, scabs, and drivers felt miserable, I am left wondering what it would take to get the boilermakers I spoke with to feel more hopeful about their current situation. As far as the members I spoke to were aware, this was the first time Lodge 146 had been locked out or on strike, so I understand the desire to do it “right.”

But it’s clear that being “reasonable” isn’t getting us anywhere, because the law defines that in a way that will destroy unions like Lodge 146. If we want to fight and win, I’m thinking it’s time we become unreasonable.

K Turner is a postal worker and IWW member, and former member of the executive of CUPW Local 730 in Edmonton.