InterviewCanada union merger to strengthen chems, energy sectors

02 August 2012 18:10  [Source: ICIS news]

By Stefan Baumgarten

TORONTO (ICIS)--A proposed merger between two large Canadian industrial labour unions will help strengthen workers' interests in the Canadian petrochemical, fertilizer and energy sectors, a top union executive said on Thursday.

Canada's Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union (CEP) and the Canadian Autoworkers Union (CAW) proposed this week to merge, forming Canada’s largest private sector union with about 300,000 members.

The move comes as Canadian unions face declining membership in a shrinking manufacturing sector. At the same time, unions are challenged by a federal government that has been increasingly willing to intervene in labour disputes.

Dave Coles, president of the CEP, whose members include around about 40,000 workers in Canada’s energy, chemical and fertilizer industries, told ICIS that the merger would, if realised, provide more resources to the union in its negotiations with companies, as well as with federal and provincial governments.

In particular, the merged union would be in a much stronger position to push for a stronger Canadian chemicals sector, Coles said.

The Canadian chemical industry needed better access to feedstocks in the oil and gas sectors in order to produce chemicals - and thus create manufacturing create jobs - in Canada, rather than just exporting the resources, he said.

“We have lost a lot of jobs in the chemical industry by not having access to enough feedstock, just look at Sarnia,” Coles said. The Sarnia petrochemicals hub in southern Ontario has seen a number of plant closures in past years.

Coles also said that the strong Canadian dollar, partly driven by oil prices, has pressured downstream manufacturing in Canada.

“The oil companies could be doing very well, thank you very much, but those people that are working downstream are facing the high Canadian dollar, and that makes competition very difficult,” Coles said.

“The jobs are in the converting side in the petrochemical industry, that’s where really good jobs are, and we want to see more of that,” he said.

"We want Canadian-based manufacturers to do well, and in my opinion [Canada] just hasn't done a good enough job on that," he added.

Canadian chemical industry executives, as well as labour officials, have often called for the government to do more to enable value-added chemical production in Canada.

CEP and CAW area working on a final report to form the new, merged union. The report will be voted on by members at conventions in August and October.

The CEP’s membership includes workers in Canada’s energy industry, in particular in western Canada’s oil sands and fertilizer sectors, as well as the communications and paper industries.

The CAW represents workers at the Canadian affiliates of the big US car makers. But its membership also includes workers in the airline and rail industries, among others.

By: Stefan Baumgarten
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