The Alberta Labour Relations Board has decided that workers in Fort McMurray, Alta., who banded together to try to pressure their employer for higher pay and more time off, must stop collectively refusing voluntary overtime because they are engaging in an illegal strike.
AlumaSafway Inc. filed an application with the Alberta Labour Relations Board last week, saying some employees violated the provincial Labour Relations Code.
An anonymous letter was circulated to scaffolders working for the company, urging them to refuse voluntary overtime in order to get better pay and working conditions. Workers refused overtime on Aug. 22, marking a "significant decline from normal circumstances," the labour board's decision says.
The board found the action constituted an illegal strike that went against the collective bargaining agreement.
Eric Adams, a University of Alberta law professor with a focus on labour and employment law, said the letter and the eventual refusal of overtime turned what is supposed to be an individual's decision to refuse overtime into a collective action.
"That can be a fine line," Adams said.
"Collective workplace action can and should happen, but only in very constrained circumstances when collective bargaining is ongoing, when a collective agreement has ended and certain conditions have been met."
The labour relations board directed the union, United Brotherhood of Carpenters Local 1325, to inform its members of its decision and for AlumaSafway employees to stop engaging in an illegal strike.
It also directed workers to disengage from a group effort to put pressure on AlumaSafway to change the terms of the job, unless it's a permitted strike.
"The guys are no longer refusing to work the overtime," said Derrick Schulte, executive secretary treasurer of the Alberta Regional Council of Carpenters and Allied Workers, which serves four union locals, including United Brotherhood of Carpenters Local 1325.
Under the collective bargaining agreement, workers should not refuse overtime without recognizing a valid reason, such as being unable to find child care, he said.
Adams said there's nothing in the labour relations board's decision that could compel workers to accept overtime.
Employees also still have the individual authority to refuse overtime, depending on their individual circumstances, he added.
Union working with worksite owners, contractors
The AlumaSafway workers felt they worked excessive hours, weren't given enough time off and weren't being compensated enough for the amount of time spent away from their families, Schulte explained.
He was unaware of those complaints until last week, but "they had been going on for a period of time," he said, adding employees last received a raise in November 2019, earning 47 cents more an hour.
The union is now working with the contractors and owners of the worksites — CNOOC Long Lake, Syncrude-Mildred Lake and Suncor — to make sure they're aware of the issues, and they're working to resolve the issues raised during the hearing.
AlumaSafway "fully supports the success of its employees and works positively to address worker concerns," a company spokesperson said in an email.
Adams said the changes AlumaSafway employees want require collective bargaining.
The labour relations board's decision will be submitted to the Court of Queen's Bench of Alberta. Anyone violating the directives will face civil or criminal penalties, including contempt of court, the decision says.
In a case such as this, employees who violate their collective agreement could receive any workplace punishment, including suspensions or termination, Adams said.