Irving offers shipbuilders $73K a year, but union says strike threat not about money

"It's about respect for the workforce and treating people fairly," said Chad Johnston, a national representative of Unifor.

'It's about respect for the workforce and treating people fairly,' says union rep

Irving workers take a break Thursday. They declined to speak to CBC about the looming strike. (CBC)
Irving Shipbuilding offered its workers a deal that would have paid shipbuilders in Halifax about $73,450 a year, but the union whose members rejected it Wednesday says it's not about money.

"It's about respect for the workforce and treating people fairly," said Chad Johnston, a national representative of Unifor.

Johnston held a news conference Thursday afternoon alongside two local union leaders. He said good pay does not allow the employer "to use poor treatment."

The union recommended that workers accept the deal, but they voted against it. 

The union could go on strike Saturday. (CBC)

The union leaders brought dozens of "On Strike" placards to Thursday's news conference and could lead 850 members out for an indefinite strike starting Saturday. There are no talks scheduled between the union and Irving. 

The workplace disruption comes as Irving delivers on its multi-billion dollar contract to build ships for the Canadian government. In 2015, Irving Shipbuilding signed a contract with the federal government to build six Arctic offshore patrol ships.

Irving will also build 15 Canadian surface combatant ships over the next 25 years. The overall project is worth billions of dollars. 

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said it's "way too early" for the federal government to think about intervening in the dispute.

"I think everybody knows how important the national shipbuilding strategy is, not just for the Canadian Armed Forces but also for jobs for Canada," he told reporters in Ottawa.

Locals should get jobs

Adam Hersey, a leader of Unifor's Local Marine Workers Federation 1, spent nine months negotiating the deal that the union members rejected.

He said the single biggest issue workers had was with subcontractors in the shipyard. 

"You're working one-on-one with a subcontractor, you're trying to teach the art of shipbuilding, you're transferring your skill sets on to them. Meanwhile, they're being paid a considerable amount more," he said Thursday afternoon. 
Chad Johnston will return to the bargaining table with Irving on Monday. (CBC)

Hersey said unionized workers think those jobs should go to their own "aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews and brothers." He said between 150 and 300 contractors are in the shipyard at any given time. 

David Baker-Mosher, president of Unifor Local MWF1, said union workers also object to temporary foreign workers in the yard. "The temporary foreign workers have created huge animosity," he said.  

Baker-Mosher said he knew of local workers who left Nova Scotia for Alberta to get work, while foreigners got jobs at Irving. He said the federal ship contract at Irving had mostly ended the boom-and-bust cycle for workers at the yard and their wages were competitive with other trades. 

Too many temporary foreign workers

Johnston said temporary foreign workers make up a dozen or so of the workforce at Irving. 

He said tension increased with a rise in disciplinary actions. He said there were about 100 actions against workers in 2014, 200 in 2015, and 300 in 2016. 

Workers don't get sick days and Johnston said many of the disciplinary actions were about employees missing work, or issues with how they did their work. "The punishment just didn't fit the crime in our view," he said. 

He blamed the premier of Nova Scotia, too, saying Stephen McNeil let too many immigrants take jobs that should have gone to locals.

"For the McNeil government to open the doors to the world to come in and take these jobs, we were dead set against that in the beginning," Johnston said.

Irving hopes union will reconsider deal

Irving Shipbuilding wouldn't speak to the media Thursday, but issued a statement from president Kevin McCoy. He said the rejected deal was fair for the company, the workers and the union. 

"Given that both the local and national members of the union bargaining committee recommended that this tentative agreement should be accepted, in the days ahead we will keep the lines of communication open with the union in the hope that they will reconsider their position," he said in the statement.
Technicians work on a hull at Halifax Shipyard in Halifax in 2013. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

McCoy said journeyperson shipbuilders at Irving currently make $34.80 an hour, or about $72,000 a year. The new deal would have raised that to $35.32 an hour, or $73,450 a year.

"We must remain competitive and provide good value for the Royal Canadian Navy who relies on us to efficiently build, maintain, and modernize their ships," he said.

McCoy said Irving has spent $400 million over the last few years to create a clean, safe and efficient workplace. 

"Halifax Shipyard shipbuilders have well-paying careers in a modern workplace that allows them and their families to plan for the future. We hope they will reconsider their position on the proposed collective agreement," he said.