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Cenovus's Christina Lake operations in northern Alberta. Unifor is in talkes with employees at Christina Lake and Foster Creek projects about forming a union.

Hand-out/CENOVUS ENERGY INC.

Tradespeople at Cenovus Energy Inc.'s two major oil sands projects are trying to unionize and its top executives are fighting back, arguing that a collective agreement would not shield workers from layoffs as the economy slumps, according to an internal company memo.

Unifor, which says it is Canada's largest private-sector union, is in talks with employees at Cenovus's Christina Lake and Foster Creek projects. The company rolled out a multifaceted response to the campaign in June, urging employees to reject the pitch.

Alberta's unemployment rate hit 7.9 per cent last month. The last time the province's labour market was this weak – save for February, which mirrored June's results – was in the middle of 1995. Sluggish energy prices are to blame for thousands of layoffs over the last 18 months, and forecasters expect the trend to continue.

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Unifor said on Wednesday that the Cenovus employees are not the only energy workers in Alberta trying to organize in light of the waves of layoffs. Cenovus, like its energy counterparts, has trimmed its work force as it shelves projects and tries to save money.

Drew Zieglgansberger, the company's executive vice-president in charge of oil sands manufacturing, lobbied employees to ignore Unifor's overtures in a June 23 memo.

"The reality in our work force … is that unions cannot protect employees from being laid off where levels in business activity demand fewer employees," he said in the note obtained by The Globe and Mail. "The most a union can do is ensure that seniority is used as the factor in determining who retains employment."

A union's pledged protections, he said, are not guaranteed.

"The union will promise you anything they think you want," Mr. Zieglgansberger wrote. "The union can promise improvements on things like job security, rates of pay, hours of work and working conditions, but it's not that simple."

Cenovus, he noted, must agree to any changes, and the bargaining process can take a "considerable" amount of time.

Unifor's discussions with Cenovus employees at Foster Creek and Christina Lake started roughly two or three months ago, said John Aman, the union's director of organizing. The Cenovus proposal would cover roughly 600 tradespeople, he estimated. The energy firm cut 440 people in April, bringing its layoff total to 1,600.

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"With the downturn and some of the changes workers are seeing … people would like to have some stability," he said Wednesday.

"We have seen a spike in interest, clearly, from workers in Alberta – energy workers, specifically."

Mr. Aman would not disclose which other company's employees are looking to unionize. The Cenovus process is in the "early stages," he said, crediting the company with giving staff the freedom to decide whether unionizing would be appropriate.

"Cenovus is doing the right thing in respect to what rights their employees have, but not every employer is as progressive or amicable," he said, adding that Unifor is optimistic the employees will band together. "We wouldn't enter into a campaign if we didn't think we would have the ability to have some success."

Unifor says it has more than 310,000 members across the country. In Alberta, for example, one local bargains on behalf of 3,400 Suncor Energy Inc. employees. Their collective agreement expired May 1, and negotiations continue.

Brett Harris, a spokesman for Cenovus, said the company wants to provide its workers with information as the union debate brews. "We respect our employees' right to make that choice, but we want to make sure that their decision is well informed," he said.

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