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Construction Union Woes in Alberta

January 1, 1985 -

The unilateral wage cut imposed by unionized contractors in Alberta has been disallowed by the Court of Queen's Bench, at least until January 25, 1985. Meanwhile, construction company representatives claim that over the last 18 months the unionized contractors' share of the construction market in Alberta has declined drastically and that high wages in the collective agreements are the stumbling blocks that must be removed. Although most union spokesmen have refused to discuss wage rate changes, Alberta's unionized electricians have agreed to freeze their hourly wage rates ($19.60) and fringe benefits ($1.80) for three years. In addition, the electricians have agreed to lower wage rates on specific projects where such is deemed necessary for competitive purposes. According to a report in the Globe and Mail of September 28, 1984, this means that the union and a contractor could agree to reduce wages to $14.50 per hour for the duration of a certain project. But it is reported that actual wage rates have dropped even lower.

This development demonstrates the desperation of workers who want to hang on to their jobs, while it also demonstrates the unfairness of leaving the settlement of wages entirely to market forces. Whereas unions previously abused their power to artificially jack up wage rates, their new predicament, which makes them virtually prepared to sign away their previous agreement, is no comfort to those who look for a long-term, more responsible age policy. The answer will not be found in the courts, nor in a return to the old ways. An editorial in the Edmonton Journal of November 14, 1984 correctly observed: "Union leaders must realize that Alberta's shrinking construction industry requires concessions from workers. Contractors must realize that workers will vigorously fight moves that often slash wages in half. Both sides must go back to the bargalning table with more flexible, pragmatic approaches in mind. They might just find that better way."