By Ezra Black
Last week Teck Resources announced that employees at its Elkview Operations and Fording River Operations ratified new five-year collective agreements.
Both sides made concessions: unionized workers got a lump sum of cash and Teck got a one-year wage freeze and a longer workday.
The agreements cover approximately 770 unionized employees at Elkview, represented by the United Steelworkers Local 9346 and another 920 unionized employees at Fording River, represented by the United Steelworkers Local 7884.
In statements, Dean Runzer, general manager of Fording River and Don Sander, general manager of Elkview Operations said they were pleased to have negotiated new collective agreements. The settlement was achieved with help from government appointed mediator Vince Ready.
It was the first time the Elk Valley’s largest union locals collaborated to achieve an agreement.
The United Steelworkers (USW) represent three of the Teck’s five Elk Valley mines. Teck’s Line Creek operations is represented by the International Union of Operating Engineers and its Greenhills operations is non-unionized.
In a Dec. 12 statement, the USW stated that 78.9 per cent of Elkview employees voted in favour of the agreement more than a year after their contract expired on Nov. 1, 2015.
“At that time coal prices were bottoming out so we weren’t in a hurry to get nothing,” said USW 9346 president Alex Hanson. “But markets have rebounded significantly in the past twelve months helping union members achieve a deal.”
Eighty-three per cent of Fording River Steelworkers ratified their agreement after working without a contract since May of this year.
“It is clear the majority of members at both Fording and Elkview support the agreements,” said USW 7884 president Don Takala “That’s how the democratic process works.”
Both agreements saw a wage freeze for one year in recognition of challenging market conditions but two per cent wage increases for the remainder of the matching five-year deals.
A significant cash settlement for ratification was reached along with $7,500 cash in lieu of a wage freeze for the first year for each unionized worker. Fording and Elkview both added to their respective retirement frameworks as well.
In addition, workers at Elkview operations made concessions, including the addition of an extra 15 minutes to their workday. Hanson is not happy Teck extracted the concession.
“When you make somebody’s day longer by even any amount of time, especially on a twelve-hour shift, obviously that’s a sticking point,” he said. “In our view they weren’t willing to pay for it. They were prepared to send us to the picket line if we refused to accept it. I’m happy we have an agreement but it’s very clear that Teck is prepared to use its financial-might to make sure it gets what it wants at the bargaining table.”
The disputed 15-minutes were previously spent doing what coal miners call “pit travel,” which were breaks after shift changes, said Hanson. Now Teck is implementing “hot changes,” which will ensure Elkview’s mining equipment will be operating more-or-less continuously.
“They want shift change to happen right at that piece of equipment in order to reduce the amount of time the equipment is sitting idle,” said Hanson. “When machines sit idle [Teck is] not making money. Who can blame them at the end of the day? It’s the corporation’s job to maximize profit.”
Hanson said Teck’s unionized employees would have more leverage if the Valley’s labour movement were more unified. He said talks are underway to merge Elkview and Coal Mountain’s unions.
“Part of the problem is different mining unions that are separate bargaining unions and their contracts expire at different times. The company has been successfully able to play those mine sites off each other,” he said. “To defend our economic interests and our safety interests and to preserve our economic standing, we’re going to have to figure out how to band together as workers in the Valley.”