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May 2013

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New Growth in Ontario: Tree Trimmers Join IBEW

Tree trimmers perform one of the most dangerous jobs in the utility industry, clearing broken branches from downed power lines, and sawing off overgrown limbs growing dangerously near live wires.

It's tough work, but in Ontario, tree trimmers have also suffered from low pay and skimpy benefits, lacking any kind of voice on the job.

But now Tamarack Tree Care workers in Ottawa are in the midst of negotiating their first contract with the New York State-based company — making them the only group of union tree trimmers in the province.

"This is an emerging industry for us, one we need to aggressively go after," says Toronto Local 636 Education Officer Paddy Vlanich.

The Ontario Labour Relations Board certified the 27 workers as members of Toronto Local 636 last fall, after a majority voted to join the IBEW in October.

Tree trimming was traditionally done by the utility companies, but in recent years, the work has been subcontracted to specialists like Tamarack, Asplundh and others — the majority of which are nonunion.

"Like any other job, once we lose the work, it's hard to get it back," says Local 636 Business Manager Barry Brown. "That's why this victory is so important for us."

The campaign started after two Ottawa Local 586 organizers, John Harrison and John Bourke, informed Local 636 that Tamarack workers were talking about how to get a voice on the job.

Among the tree-trimmers' top concerns were respect in the workplace and wages and benefits. Lead Organizer Brett Youngberg met with employees and helped put together a voluntary organizing committee.

The company was not happy to hear the news. "Tamarack made it clear they didn't want to be the first tree-trimming company to have a union," Brown says. Tamarack attempted to claim that it was an agricultural business, and therefore not covered by provincial labour law.

The labour board disagreed, allowing the election to go forward.

Now Local 636 is looking to organize other Tamarack locations, as well as additional tree-trimming contractors operating in Ontario.

Brown says the results of the first contract negotiations will have a major impact on the future of the industry — potentially setting off a race to the top in a sector that for too long has been marked by low wages and a lack of on-the-job respect.

"We want to create a level playing field so we can raise the standards for all tree trimmers in the province," he says.

In March, Local 636 scored another organizing victory, winning union representation for 98 Toronto-area NCR technicians. The workers maintain and service check-out and ATM machines.

Employees, distressed by unfair treatment, contacted organizers Bill Martindale and Youngberg late last year. An Internet search showed that Vancouver, British Columbia, Local 213 already represented NCR technicians in Western Canada.

Within a month, the unit was certified and is getting ready to begin negotiations for its first contract.

"It's a big victory for us and the labour movement," Brown said.