Nova Scotia

Truce in 3-year Nova Scotia unionization dispute

There's a temporary truce in a three-year dispute in Nova Scotia over whether two small energy efficiency companies should become union shops.

International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers argued businesses broke rules by not unionizing

There's a temporary truce in a three-year dispute in Nova Scotia over whether two small energy efficiency companies should become union shops.

On Monday, a company that works for Efficiency Nova Scotia agreed to use unionized electricians in an effort to resolve the issue.

"As long as they treat me fairly I'll treat them fairly," said Alex Watters of Advanced Lighting. "If it doesn't work, we'll be back here."

The dispute began when Local 625 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers claimed the right to represent so-called successor companies of semi-retired businessman Derek Cottam and Watters, who is one of Cottam's former employees.

Alex Watters of Advanced Lighting said he's agreed to use unionized electricians at his business on a trial basis. (CBC)

In the mid-1990s Cottam ran — and then shut down — an electrical contracting business whose employees were represented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

Cottam has since gone on to become an energy efficiency consultant — as has Watters — who provides lighting audits and retrofits for Efficiency Nova Scotia under its Business Energy Solutions program.

The union took Cottam and Watters to the Labour Board, arguing that any successor company must be a union shop.

On Monday, the Labour Board hearing into the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers application was adjourned after Watters agreed — on a trial basis — to use union electricians provided they meet cost targets. If the test fails, the hearing will resume in September.

"We have to give it a shot. The problem is we've been strong-armed and threatened financially. I don't like that stuff," Watters told CBC News outside the hearing.

The case has attracted attention because Cottam — one of the union targets — is 77 years old and in ill health. He recently suffered a stroke.

He was subpoenaed to attend the hearing and asked Eric Slone, the vice-chair of the Labour Board, to "squash" the case and claimed the stress was making him ill.

"It's not doing me any good because it's literally killing me," Cottam said.

Mike Kydd, the president of the Merit Contractors Association of Nova Scotia, called what's happening to Cottam a "travesty."

"Let it go. Let Mr. Cottam move on," said Kydd. "He provides no value whatsoever to the unionization or to the certification process."

Tim Swinamer, the business manager of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 625 said a principle is at stake.

"It's more about your duty to represent. When you have cases such as this one where there is a question about successive rights, it's incumbent upon me as business manager to follow through with that to see if the board agrees or disagrees," said Swinamer.

"It really had no personal bearing on Mr. Cottam or anybody else."

Both Cottam and Watters maintain the real issue is the Efficiency Nova Scotia retrofits done by Watters.

Swinamer said it's unclear how long that work will last, but said they are "substantial contracts" and the union should make its case to get the work. He said the agreement between the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and Watters is a mechanism to resolve the dispute.

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