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March 2017

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Leadership, Determined Workers Lead to Vancouver Organizing Win Over 'Fake' Union

Leif Andersen heard fellow workers on a jobsite at the BC Children's Hospital in Vancouver last spring talk about their union failing to listen to their concerns and continually siding with management.

Others said safety standards were lax. Some questioned why other men and women working in the trades had higher salaries.

Despite being new on the job for Trotter & Morton, a leading construction company in western Canada, Andersen decided to investigate and made a call to William Maarsman, lead organizer for Vancouver Local 213.

"I started asking some really difficult questions of the CWU rep," said Andersen, referring to the Canada West Construction Union — which is not as well-known but similar to the Christian Labour Association of Canada, which critics charge is a trade union in name only because it often negotiates contracts favorable to management. Canadian labour activists often call them "fake unions."

"He just kept talking in circles," Andersen continued. "He couldn't give me answers on what we're doing with this union."

Less than a year later, Andersen's former co-workers voted 217-64 for representation from Vancouver Local 213, giving them a strong, respected advocate and adding more than 300 men and women to the IBEW.

"Apparently, it's a really big deal," Maarsman said, "because I've been getting calls from all over the country about it."

Maarsman and Andersen — with considerable help from Trotter & Morton employees and pipefitters Local 170 — turned out to be a perfect combination for the organizing effort, which culminated with the vote in early January.

"We had a young guy who is not scared to go out and organize and talk to people," Business Manager Adam Van Steinburg said of Andersen. "And we had a veteran organizer who could show him the ropes and lay the groundwork for him."

Maarsman, 65, is a longtime 213 official and organizer. He figured Trotter & Morton employees would be ripe for an organizing drive when they realized the poor representation they were receiving from Canada West.

But he needed someone with contacts among the workers. That turned out to be Andersen, 32, who had been a member of Kamloops, British Columbia, Local 993 before returning to his hometown of Vancouver. He was out of work, so he took the Trotter & Morton job.

He was let go at the end of his 90-day probationary period, which Andersen suspected was because Canada West had identified him as a troublemaker to company officials.

After leaving the job, he stayed in touch with five former co-workers who shared his concerns and told them about the benefits of IBEW representation. He reached out to Local 213 and eventually was hired as a full-time organizer in November.

"He continually showed me he could talk to people and deliver the message," Van Steinburg said. "He wasn't afraid to put into practice what William told him. He carried that message for months."

Andersen's work earlier in the year was paying off. He and Trotter & Morton employees quickly collected cards from 70 percent of the eligible employees requesting a vote for IBEW certification.

They were ready when Canada West officials started bad-mouthing the IBEW. Maarsman and Van Steinburg showed that Local 213 members were working more hours and receiving better pay and benefits. They also touted Local 213's training center, which currently has about 720 apprentices, Van Steinburg said.

"I chose not to enter into a media war with them, which turned out to be good strategy," Maarsman said. "CWU was just ticking off their own members."

In the end, the vote wasn't close and it bumped up Local 213 to about 5,100 members, Van Steinburg said.

"Credit for this decision goes to the employees at Trotter & Morton," Maarsman said. "They had a clear vision of what they wanted and they organized to make it happen."

The organized labour movement remains volatile in British Columbia, where some unions are pushing for the defeat of Premier Christy Clark's Liberal government. Van Steinburg said getting a big organizing win in that climate made it a little more special.

"We have a nasty kind of anti-union government in place," he said. "I've always known we're the right choice for electrical workers and utility workers in the province. This just proves that again. When you focus your efforts on engaging and informing people, it pays off."

Andersen said he looks forward to Local 213 building a positive working relationship with the company. He found himself a new career as an organizer. He said his job satisfaction comes from helping workers stand up to a group that failed to represent them.

"It was extremely rewarding to see the CWU kept accountable for a lack of action," he said. "It's a union's role to keep the company in check. Those checks and balances are absolutely essential to keep a good relationship between the company and its employees. To see that further enhanced in the labour movement is very rewarding. But for me as an individual, I was just doing my job."