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Costa Rican Tunnellers Told Strike Would Kill Project

Union charging unfair labour practices.

Tom Sandborn 20 Nov

Tom Sandborn is a regular contributor to The Tyee with a focus on health care and labour issues.

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Canada Line train

SLCP-SELI Joint Venture, the employer at the controversy-plagued Canada Line False Creek tunnel project in Vancouver, told its employees in September that if they voted for a strike the company would walk away from the project and they'd be out of a job.

The revelation came during a Labour Relations Board hearing Wednesday, Nov. 15. Local 1611 of the Construction and Specialized Workers' Union, which represents the newly organized workers on the project, mainly Costa Ricans brought to Canada under federal work permits, is pursuing an unfair labour practices complaint against the company based in part on this threat.

The union is arguing that the threat of job loss, illegal "pot-sweetening" offers made by the employer after they had filed a final contract offer and terms of the proposed contract that specify different wage rates for workers depending on their country of origin all represent unfair labour practices. These unfair practices, says Local 1611 lawyer Kevin Blakely, "taint" the process around the company's final offer to such an extent that the Board should destroy the ballots cast Oct. 2.

'Fooling our employees'

The Tyee has obtained a copy of a letter sent by SLCP-SELI Joint Venture to Mark Olsen of Local 1611. Dated Sept. 21, 2006, it reads, in part:

"As we have told you, a strike will force SELI to abandon this project. This will put our employees out of work. You are fooling our employees if you tell them that you can take care of them if they vote for a strike. The only way our employees can secure their future is by accepting our offer and voting no on your strike vote."

The letter is signed by Chris Wates, human resources manager for SLCP-SELI Joint Venture.

On Tuesday, Nov. 14, SLCP-SELI and Local 1611 apparently created a document (obtained by The Tyee from Local 1611) that confirmed the existence of the Sept. 21 letter and its distribution to company employees in both Spanish and English. The agreed statement of facts goes on to say that Fabrizio Antonini, speaking for the joint venture, told employees that SELI might have to leave the project if the last-offer vote was rejected. According to the agreed statement of facts, he told employees:

"I can't imagine what will happen to the project and to us even if the project will be stopped. I don't want to think about this black scenario."

Many of the tunnel workers at the centre of the False Creek dispute are residents of Costa Rica brought to Canada by SELI under federally issued work permits. These workers have been at the centre of controversy since their arrival, with union spokespeople charging the company with paying the guest workers far less than B.C. rates for the work performed, and suggesting that documents associated with the Costa Ricans' move to Canada and wages here had been altered.

Calls not returned

When The Tyee approached Wates at the hearing on Wednesday morning for comment on the Sept. 21 letter, the agreed statement of facts and the events of the morning's hearing, he refused to comment, suggesting a call to Steve Crombie, who speaks for IntransitBC, the principle contractor on the Canada Line project.

IntransitBC is a joint venture of SNC Lavalin, a Canadian company; the Investment Management Corporation of B.C.; and the Caisse de Depot et Placements de Quebec. SLCP-SELI, Wates's employer, is the subcontractor responsible to IntransitBC for drilling the False Creek tunnel leg of the Canada Line.

Neither Steve Crombie nor any other spokesperson for IntansitBC returned multiple calls from The Tyee.

In a phone interview with The Tyee on Oct. 25, however, Crombie referred to a vote taken by the newly organized Canada Line tunnel project members of Local 1611 on October 22.

"If the employees think they are being mistreated," Crombie said, "they could have voted for a strike last Sunday night, and they didn't." Crombie made no mention in the interview of the warning letter from Wates.

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