Nfld. & Labrador

Don't blame N.L. workers for Muskrat woes, union leaders tell inquiry

Poor management and ill-prepared contractors are to blame for Muskrat Falls cost and schedule overruns, not Newfoundland and Labrador workers, union leaders told the Muskrat Falls inquiry Monday.

Astaldi a big reason for early setbacks on hydro project, says Tom Walsh and Pat McCormack

Tom Walsh (left) and Pat McCormack are two labour leaders who testified Monday at the Muskrat Falls inquiry in St. John's. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

Poor management, ill-prepared contractors and a hostile labour climate created by Nalcor led to massive cost and schedule overruns at Muskrat Falls; not Newfoundland and Labrador workers, union leaders told the Muskrat Falls inquiry Monday.

Labour leaders from two organizations — the N.L. Building and Construction Trades Council and the Resource Development Trades Council — came to the defence of unionized workers during a full day of testimony before inquiry commissioner Richard LeBlanc.

The inquiry is trying to determine why the publicly funded project is billions over budget and at least two years behind schedule.

Pat McCormack and Tom Walsh told LeBlanc companies like Astaldi, which received the contract to build the powerhouse, spillway and transition dam, and a poor labour relations atmosphere created by government-owned Nalcor Energy, are to blame.

The Muskrat Falls power station and other infrastructure is shown here in this recent photo provided by Nalcor Energy. (Nalcor)

"Productivity of Newfoundland workers, in my opinion, was never an issue," said McCormack, who served as president of the two trades councils from 2013 until 2017, a very critical period in the Muskrat project.

"Newfoundlanders are very productive people on these major projects. On any construction job in the world," added Tom Walsh, who works as a labour relations site representative at the Muskrat Falls construction site.

"They were mismanaged initially by Astaldi because they had never been to North America before and the building trades type of agreement was probably very unique to them. They were not ready to proceed with the work that was required of them."

'Worst labour relations'

McCormack has worked in construction since the 1960s, and helped build another famous hydroelectric generating station in Labrador, the Upper Churchill.

His assessment of labour relations on the Muskrat Falls project was less than flattering.

"Of all the projects I was involved with, labour relations at Muskrat Falls was by far the worst labour relations I ever dealt with, or tried to deal with," McCormack said.

Walsh, meanwhile, described relations as "very difficult."

Hundreds of grievances and numerous and costly arbitrations resulted in a tense relationship between the unions and the employer, they said, and sometimes distracted workers from the task at hand.

A decision by Nalcor to create three separate collective agreements for the Lower Churchill Project also created friction and division, they added.
These steel towers support the 1,100-kilometre Labrador-Island transmission line from Muskrat Falls to Soldiers Pond on Newfoundland's Avalon Peninsula. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

The trades council is an umbrella group for 16 unions, and has traditionally negotiated broad collective agreements for major projects like Hebron and the nickel processing facility at Long Harbour.

But Nalcor insisted that it only negotiate with five unions — ironworkers, carpenters, labourers, operating engineers and the Teamsters — for the collective agreement at the Muskrat Falls generating station. 

Nalcor negotiated a standalone deal with the electricians union for construction of the Labrador-Island transmission line, and also a separate agreement with the labourers union for clearing of the Muskrat reservoir.

McCormack said this created a great deal of tension among the various unions, and he believes there should have been one sweeping agreement, as was the case with other major projects in the province.

Bonuses and incentives

McCormack suggested it was a tactic of Nalcor to "weaken" the trades council, and it seems to have worked.

He said operating engineers and the teamsters "lost a lot of work" on the transmission project and the reservoir clearing.

And he said there were bonuses and incentives for workers on the transmission project that weren't available for those working on the generating station.

"How do you expect to have productivity when you're pitting one worker against another?" said McCormack.

"How that was allowed to happen I don't know," he added.

McCormack went on to say "there was no enlightenment, only just greed."
Labour leaders Tom Walsh (left) and Pat McCormack had harsh criticism for Nalcor and Astaldi at the Muskrat Falls inquiry on Monday in St. John's. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

When asked about safety at the site, the union leaders were critical again, with McCormack giving the project a 5.5 out of 10, while adding that Hebron safety was nearly perfect.

There have not been any deaths linked directly to the Muskrat Falls project, and Walsh said that's surprising.

"I always thought Astaldi may not have been the best managed company on a site in Canada, but they are certainly the luckiest," he said.

[Astaldi was] like somebody lost in the wilderness​​​​- Pat McCormack

Meanwhile, they said workers were also subjected to poor living conditions at the temporary camps that housed them on the remote construction site.

"Accommodations did not come anywhere near to what the Upper Churchill was, which was pretty well 50 years prior to," said McCormack.

"The Upper Churchill rooms were cleaned every day. Sheets were changed twice a week. At Muskrat Falls, workers most times were lucky if they got their rooms cleaned once in two weeks."

There was was so much sand on the stairs and in the hallways that "you were taking a chance at taking your boots off," and this became a safety issue, McCormack noted.

Some of their harshest criticism was reserved for Astaldi, the Italian company that struggled to deliver the largest contract on the project.

"They were like somebody lost in the wilderness," said McCormack. "Nobody seemed to know what they were doing."

Walsh said that "Astaldi was certainly out of place" in the early going, but that things turned around when new management arrived in 2015.

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About the Author

Terry Roberts is a journalist with CBC's bureau in St. John's.