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Trade-union support for Northern Gateway is no surprise

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Opinion: Trade-union support for Northern Gateway is no surprise

Written by Robert Deane for The Vancouver Sun, May 09, 2014 

Pipefitters such as Matt Adam can look forward to good jobs if the Northern Gateway Pipleine is built. Photograph by: Arlen Redekop , Vancouver Sun

Pipefitters such as Matt Adam can look forward to good jobs if the Northern Gateway Pipleine is built.
Photograph by: Arlen Redekop , Vancouver Sun

The recent support of several trade unions for the Northern Gateway Pipeline project, while a key development, should come as no surprise to anyone. Most of us can readily see the alignment of large infrastructure projects and the possibility for high paying jobs.

But more important, we need to look beyond the immediate employment opportunities to the larger community.

People who make decent union wages have disposable income. This affects the income of all retailers, professionals and others in the community. Further, it often compels others to raise incomes and benefits for non-union workers in the same area.

That’s why I was pleased to see some prominent trade unions sign a memorandum of understanding with Northern Gateway and the Pipe Line Contractors Association of Canada. Union signatories to the MOU include the Laborers’ International Union of North America, the International Union of Operating Engineers, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipefitting Industry of the U.S. and Canada.

According to reports, the MOU will guarantee a minimum target of about 2,100 person-years of employment of union labour on the project. These targets are to be established in detailed Project Labour Agreements.

The fact is this: Minimum-wage and lower-wage jobs, part time jobs and insecure jobs do not build stable communities. If you wish to build a society with good schools, adequate recreational facilities, excellent infrastructure and well-funded social services, you need the income and tax dollars that decent paying sustainable employment provides.

Recently, the residents of Kitimat, site of the project’s planned terminus and the proposed location for storage and shipping facilities, rejected the report of the Joint Review Panel — and, by extension one assumes, the project itself — in a non-binding vote. Although I understand the concerns of the 58 per cent of voters who were against the JRP report and the project, I would hasten to remind them to reconsider the long-term viability of their community without the capital investment Northern Gateway will provide.

Further, the participation of trade unions should ensure due diligence is a continueing element of the project. Although I have occasionally been critical of some trade-union practices I have always believed the trade-union movement has generally been a powerful force for social good throughout history. While there are ethical, conscientious non-union employers in any industry, what’s clear is no one wants to return to Charles Dickens’s 19th-century industrial England.

This project offers the local economy an opportunity to run against the tide of an international wage mentality that can be described as a race to the bottom. Rather, this project promotes the establishment of a value-added economy that could create a critical mass of talent that’s attractive to other industries, both petroleum related a non-related.

Unions have always been supportive of safe, clean and responsible work environments. Post-construction, union members will live in the community and raise their families there. Their long-term participation in the project will likely establish a high water mark for employment and encourage young people to seek technical training and stay in the community.

I watch young people from my town fly halfway across the country to the West to find decent paying technical jobs in the oil industry that can no longer be found in southern Ontario. I would exhort the residents of Kitimat and other right-of-way communities engaged in this conversation to look beyond the daunting and legitimate concerns they have, and to embrace a long term-vision of prosperity and growth.

I concur with the JRP and I have no doubt all risks can be managed and that community issues of concern will stay on the front burner to be solved jointly. I also have no doubt the trade unions will be a positive force in building a responsible, environmentally sensitive and sustainable industry that lasts well into the future.

Professor Robert Deane teaches business at King’s University College, Western University (formerly University of Western Ontario) in London, Ont.

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