British Columbia union ordered to pay $500,000 bill for defaming company

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A union has been ordered to pay $500,000 to a company that operates labor camps in northern British Columbia after an arbitrator ruled it defamed Civeo Corp. in an online post that linked the company to historic broken promises to Indigenous peoples.

“The union’s statements were very serious, especially when placed in the broader context of relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities in Canada, and more generally the history of colonization and broken promises to First Nations Nations,” umpire Nicholas Glass wrote in the recent decision.

“Although counsel for the employer declined to go so far as to make this affirmative assertion, I have concluded that the use of the term ‘broken promises’ was deliberately chosen and emphasized by the union to associating the employer’s conduct with the unsavory history of broken promises endured by First Nations over many decades.

Civeo Corp., a Texas-based company that operates as Civeo Pacific Northwest Employees LP to provide worker housing for industrial development in northern British Columbia, won the settlement after union Unite Here Local 40 of Vancouver posted a banner on its website that read “Civeo’s broken promises to First Nations people.

The post went on to slam the company for low wages, a decline in hiring Indigenous workers, and a lack of “commitment to improving the standard of living for Indigenous workers and their families.”

Glass ruled that the allegations against Civeo were “a complete fabrication” designed to press for reopening the collective bargaining agreement with the union before the end of his term.

He added that the words carried a “special sting” in the context of broken promises to Canada’s Indigenous peoples and said the sweeping allegation was “much more damaging” than simply accusing the company of not keeping a promise.

Instead, he said, the phrase suggests bad faith.

“This was not hidden innuendo, but an open invitation to moderately well-informed Canadians to associate the employer’s conduct with this unsavory and distressing story,” he wrote.

Unite Here Local 40 describe bills itself as “the fastest growing camp workers union in British Columbia” and represents workers at Civeo, Horizon North Kitimat, Kitimat LNG, Coastal GasLink’s Parsnip Lodge and ATCO camps serving the Trans Pipeline Project Mountain.

At the start of the pandemic, the union fought for – and won – better working conditions for Horizon North janitors who clean the LNG Canada plant, including a 40% wage increase over three years, increased hiring of local Aboriginal workers and better benefits.

In October, Unite Here Local 40 won a grievance against Civeo, when the BC Labor Relations Board ruled that the company improperly influenced workers to organize with the union. He authorized Local 40 to meet with camp workers on the Coastal GasLink and Trans Mountain projects.

The defamatory posting of “broken promises” on the Local 40 website specifically related to Sitka Lodge in Kitimat, Haisla Nation territory. The camp provided housing for LNG Canada project workers.

Civeo also operates two labor camps on Wet’suwet’en territory on the western portion of the Coastal GasLink pipeline, and was named in two unrelated lawsuits last month that allege sexual assault and a culture of drug abuse. alcohol and harassment at all three camps, including Sitka Lodge. Both lawsuits remain before the courts.

Civeo entered into its agreement governing working relationships at Sitka Lodge with Unite Here Local 40 in 2018. Although the agreement is intended to last for the duration of camp operations, it is subject to change by mutual agreement between the parties. parts.

The agreement called for prioritizing the hiring of local indigenous workers and minimum hourly wages, adjusted annually for inflation.

Glass found that while Civeo may have caused “disappointment and frustration” to local First Nations by offering far lower wages than other industry jobs in the area, especially at a time when the cost of life was increasing due to industrial development, he found no specific violation. of his collective agreement.

The wage issue came to a head last summer, according to the ruling, when a request to reopen the deal was rejected by Civeo and the union sought ways to put pressure on the employer.

It was then that he posted the “broken promises” allegation, which remained on the site for two months, despite calls from the company to publicly retract the statements and apologize for have made them.

Civeo filed its grievance against the union on August 20, seeking damages and a cease and desist order. He said the comments were intended to harm Civeo in the community and its business interests, as it has a partnership with the Haisla and works closely with the nation on hiring.

During the February hearings, a Civeo employee testified that the company has a positive relationship with the Haisla Nation.

As proof, Civeo pointed to a recent Kitimat Chamber of Commerce Business Excellence Award for Indigenous Partnerships, for which he was nominated by the Haisla. Civeo, Coastal GasLink and LNG Canada are all award sponsors.

The ruling called Local 40’s accusations of cutting Indigenous hiring “highly misleading,” given an overall decline in hiring workers during the pandemic.

“The truth is that there was a decrease in the hiring of indigenous workers and non-indigenous workers during the chosen period, but the union singled out only one category for its negative publicity against Civeo “, did he declare.

Arbitrator Glass also noted that low wages were shared by Indigenous and non-Indigenous workers.

The union says that while the company touted its commitments to First Nations, workers at Sitka Lodge struggled to pay their bills. “The promise of resource projects like LNG Canada in the community has not been kept,” the decision says, summarizing the union’s position.

“Large-scale resource projects like LNG Canada operate in British Columbia, particularly on the traditional and unceded territories of Indigenous peoples, and present themselves as providing economic opportunity,” he said. “British Columbians and Aboriginal people welcome these projects in their communities with the expectation that they too will benefit. »

Local 40 chief organizer Mike Biskar said workers were upset that wages were much lower than other industrial projects in the area, such as the Kitimat Modernization Project, where workers were paid $45 per hour while lodge workers earned $21 per hour.

Biskar testified that the “broken promises” referred to what the union heard from Indigenous members – that they expected well-paying jobs that would cover their bills.

Biskar testified that the lawsuit forced the union to stop pushing for things like increased Aboriginal hiring and reduced workloads.

The decision took into consideration the font size, positioning and prominence of the “broken promises” banner. He noted that a link to the webpage was sent to the union’s 180 email recipients and posted on its Facebook page, where it was promoted with an advertisement that was clicked 625 times.

Glass said its placement on the website meant it had the potential for wide dissemination, including through internet searches, and added that the union’s delays in removing the post and continued insistence on the fact that the statement was correct “should greatly increase the damage”.

Glass cited evidence of Civeo’s “good standing and position in the community”.

“Civeo has a very good reputation when it comes to its relationship with First Nations… which is seriously threatened by the claim that Civeo has broken its promises to First Nations,” he said, adding that the conduct “deserves a substantial award of punitive damages. ”

He ordered the union to pay $400,000 in general damages and $100,000 in punitive damages, and to retract the defamatory comments.

Unite Here Local 40 declined to comment on the decision or whether it would appeal. No withdrawal is currently displayed on the union website.

Civeo Corp. did not respond to The Tyee’s request for comment.  [Tyee]

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