N.B. coal truckers battle power utility in court

FREDERICTON, N.B. (April 26, 2004) — A dozen New Brunswick coal haulers had their long-awaited day in court last week, fighting what they say is unfair labour practices by the province’s power utility.

The N.B. Coal Truckers Association is suing NB Coal, a wholly-owned subsidiary of NB Power, for breach of contract in a case that dates back to late 2000. The association is representing 12 Minto truckers who claim the utility guaranteed a coal-hauling contract until 2004 if the operators bought new equipment for the work. The truckers hauled coal from the Grand Lake Power Plant and to the Belledune plant.

In 2000, however, their contract — which did not contain the 2004 commitment in writing — was terminated, the Fredericton Daily Gleaner reported. There were originally 14 truckers in the suit but two have filed separate claims.

The Association is citing arguments NB Power made in a similar case against another company in their own separate suit. NB Power is currently suing a Venezuelan oil company for $2 billion, because it failed to deliver on a promise to deliver fuel to the utility despite not having a signed contract.

However, the truckers’ spokesperson Charles Tyler acknowledged he and his colleagues have a steep grade to climb if they’re to win the case. He says it was tough trying to prove high-level NB Coal executives made the verbal promise to extend the contracts. He said that three coal truckers swore under oath the president of NB Coal guaranteed the work until 2004 during a closed-door meeting, a claim the exec now “doesn’t remember making,” Tyler says.

“What we’re saying is that, yes, you fulfilled your original contract. But you made a verbal contract that if we upgraded our equipment we could haul until 2004,” he told Today’s Trucking. “Our argument is that although you fulfilled the written contract, you broke our verbal one and owe damages.”

Tyler said his group’s other argument is that the company didn’t give proper notice before terminated the contract. He says that the truckers should be treated as “near employees” — having a little more status than contract workers and a little less status than salaried workers.

Tyler points out case law in various provinces — including the “Mackie decision” in Ontario — where judges have ruled contractors who take part in operations and activities the same as regular workers can be classified as company workers.

— with files from the Daily Gleaner

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