Worker Movement as a Union Issue: An Examination of Collective Bargaining Agreements in the Construction Sector in Alberta, Canada

By Cake, Susan | Canadian Journal of Sociology, Summer 2016 | Go to article overview

Worker Movement as a Union Issue: An Examination of Collective Bargaining Agreements in the Construction Sector in Alberta, Canada


Cake, Susan, Canadian Journal of Sociology


INTRODUCTION

Approximately 34 per cent of people living in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB) in Alberta, Canada are considered part of a geographically mobile population of workers (RMWB 2013). (1) With easier access to efficient travel, we are seeing an increase in different types of geographically mobile workers (Newhook et al. 2011: 125-126) who have received relatively limited attention in the social sciences' "mobility turn" (Sheller and Urry 2006). Particularly under-researched is how collective bargaining agreements between employers, provincial trade divisions and trade unions structure workers' geographic mobility. The topic of mobility is especially interesting given union revitalization efforts in many Western countries (see Phellen 2007; Frege and Kelly 2004) and those specifically focusing on Canada (see Hunt and Rayside 2000; Kumar and Schenk 2006; Camfield 2011). This study on worker mobility and unions specifically draws from Briskin's (2011) and Yate's (2004) claims that for unions to renew they must expand what issues they deal with, for example including issues such as child- and healthcare. (2) These revitalization efforts aim to expand issues unions can officially respond to in their collective bargaining agreements, helping unions stay relevant to workers.

Drawing on 50 collective bargaining agreements spanning from 2007 to 2019, I explore how unions and employers respond to the large population of mobile workers in the RMWB and how this response affects what is considered a union issue in collective agreements. I begin with a brief outline of literature on worker mobility in Canada and then follow with a description of the social reproduction framework that helps us understand the role of these collective agreements with regards to mobility and union issues. In the analysis section I provide an overview of the results and a discussion of three general findings: that local residents are defined and treated as a distinct category of workers; that including worker transportation and living arrangements in these agreements expands what can be considered a workspace and a union issue; and that the expansion of these agreements into other spaces also allows a divide between workspace/market space and private homes as well as the masculine and feminine in terms of mobility and union issues.

CONTEXT

The flows of worker migration to and within Canada has varied, largely responding to the needs of capital. Although not the focus of this paper, other researchers have taken up worker mobility from studies of commutes to labour migration. Research on commuting highlights different inequalities between workers including commuting times, lengths and efficiencies that further depend on where workers live and work, the local infrastructure facilitating commuting and even demographics of the commuters (Edensor 2011; Partridge and Nolan 2005; Green 2004; Hanson 2010). In contrast to research on commutes are those focusing on permanent and circular international labour migration to Canada (for example Barber 2008; Schiller and Salazar 2013; Salazar 2011; Flecker 2010; Fudge 2012). As well, researchers have examined different Canadian programs to facilitate circular international labour movement including the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (Barnetson and Foster 2014; Fudge and MacPhail 2009), the Live-In Care Giver Program (Bakan and Stasiulis 1997) and the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (Hennebry and Preibisch 2012; Preibisch and Binford 2007). The migration literature on interprovincial migration in Canada has focused on the permanent movement of workers from one location to another, showing a tendency for these flows to go in one direction (Newhook et al. 2011). In the early 1980s workers relocated from southwestern Ontario to Alberta; however, this flow reversed itself in 1982 as industrial workers returned to Ontario (High 2003). This period was followed by waves of workers travelling to Alberta from Ontario, Quebec and the east coast of Canada, (Statistics Canada 2015) as well as many temporary international workers (Barnetson and Foster 2014) despite the economic downturn of the oil sands. …

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