August 2013 Archives

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Labour Day weekend

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So we’re heading into the long weekend, and I’m feeling a little whimsical and very tired. I suppose I should be penning a long, ponderous piece about Labour Day, but there’ll be enough of those articles elsewhere.

Well, OK, a couple of things, if you insist. The origin of Labour Day in Canada was in 1872, when some leaders of the Toronto Typographical Union were arrested for “conspiracy” after a 10,000-strong labour march through the streets to Queen’s Park supporting the TTU’s demand for a 58-hour week. It just so happened that the employer in this case was George Brown, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald’s hated political rival. But we mustn’t attribute motives. MacDonald repealed what he called “barbarous” anti-union laws in June of that year by passing the Trade Union Act that legalized unions.

(Now, that’s one Conservative I can get behind. Sir John, here are a couple of men I’d like you to meet.)

It was another, less well-known Canadian Prime Minister, Prime Minister John Thompson, who actually made Labour Day an official holiday in 1894, after years of annual marches. In my old stomping ground of Winnipeg, on that first official Labour Day, there was a parade extending 5 kilometres.

Anyway, enough history, and on to the present.

Last evening, I arrived in Vancouver to join our members at the Vancouver International Airport: a strike was looming, now thankfully averted with a last-minute tentative agreement. (Way to go, bargaining team!) Earlier, when I was in Winnipeg, I’d been checking the media about possible weekend disruptions there. Obviously I had some inside knowledge, but nevertheless, it’s always good to see ourselves as others see us. So I went to the CBC website, and this is what I found.

Everything about this story was irritating. First, there was no mention whatsoever of the actual issues involved, which is a bit like covering a mass demonstration but forgetting to tell people what people were actually demonstrating about. Then there were the comments. The negative assumptions were everywhere: greedy unions wanting more (in fact, the group was fighting employer concessions), how this disruption would lose these “goons” public sympathy, and how a strike wouldn’t cause disruptions because anybody could do their jobs.

Yes, there’s some contradiction there, all right. It’s like people complaining about immigrants because “they’re all on welfare and taking our jobs.” In any case, this news story raised a sore point with me that I’d like to get off my chest before the festivities begin. It takes two to tango, as they say. So what is it about so called “labour disputes” (why are they never called “employer disputes?”) that makes members of the public so quick to assign blame without—like the CBC reporter—even bothering to ask what it’s all about in the first place?

In a way, we’re getting a back-handed compliment. Everyone benefits from the work that union members do. So it’s natural that people don’t want that work to stop. This is a pretty strong testimonial to the value of our labour, in fact, but it does get in the way sometimes.

If nobody missed our work, then what good would a strike be? But let’s back up. A strike is a weapon of last resort—the vast majority of contract negotiations are settled without one. When they do happen, there’s not much joy on either side. Being on strike is hard slogging, and it’s not well-remunerated.

The public may indeed be “held hostage,” as the media and commenters never tire of saying, but not by folks forced out on strike when they’d far rather be working. Concession bargaining is the norm these days: far from wanting to grab more, unions and their members are spending most of their bargaining time fighting to keep what we have. Who wouldn’t?

But how do we get that message across? Well, we keep campaigning, and talking to any media who will listen, and putting the issues out there as best we might. But whatever message we can manage to push through the dense filter of the mainstream media will never be enough to convince anyone of anything. It’s no surprise, at least to me, that almost every newspaper in Canada endorsed Stephen Harper in the 2011 election. They’re an unreliable megaphone when the union voice wants to be heard.

Word of mouth, as in union organizing, is always the most effective means of communicating. Rank-and-file workers need to keep telling their own stories to other workers, friends, family and neighbours. And Labour Day marches are a proud tradition: they’re a way of showing the union banner, but they’re also a celebration of workers themselves, and that’s you—your lives, your sacrifices, and the work that you do.

So, enjoy the weekend, everyone, and just kick back. You’ve earned it. In fact, your predecessors were the ones who helped to make the whole thing possible. Kinda makes you proud, doesn’t it?

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Hard on the heels of McDonald’s household budget for its underpaid employees—that left out water, clothing, gas, heat and child care, and “assumed” a hike in the minimum wage for good measure—the Fraser Institute arrives with the claim that a kid can be raised for $3-4.5K per year.

Christopher Sarlo (oh, that guy) makes the claim in a study that has already rightly become the butt of social media jokes—check out #FraserInstituteKidTips for yourselves.

As a mother myself, I was fascinated to learn that I could have raised my own children for so little. Alas, like the McDonald budget, some frills were left out: food, clothing, childcare and housing costs. Oh, they get mentioned, all right, but, like some kind of numerological magician, Sarlo just makes them disappear.

Most families cannot access daycare, for example. It’s costly, and often in short supply—and some are rich enough not to need it. So Sarlo simply decides not to factor it in.

Just as well for his cheap-child conclusions that daycare was left out of his equation, perhaps. Here’s a family that has relied upon it. $1600 per month. For one child. Here’s another. Small wonder that couples with children, according to Statistics Canada, account for half of all the household debt in Canada.

Young families, in fact, are in a serious bind. Two incomes today buy what one often did in the 1970s: effectively, the work week has gone from 40 to 80 hours. House prices have skyrocketed. The younger generations are finding it extremely difficult to get started, saddled as they are with student debt loads and a shrinking job market. And the older generations are often having, as a result, to keep the young ones at home longer, subsidize tuition, furnish a downpayment, and so on.

Indeed, inequality is steadily increasing in Canada, and has been for quite some time. The median income rose a modest 5% from 1976 to 2009, but at the same time the top 20% have been claiming an ever-larger portion of the collective wealth. The average income—again, beware of those averages—has risen 17%, but that reflects, not general well-being, but a concentration of wealth at the top of the economic ladder.

You don’t see any of this, of course, in the Fraser study: it just adds insult to economic injury by publishing these fanciful figures, which miss so much and so much of the real costs of having a child. Sarlo doesn’t make comparisons with the past, ignores today’s horrendous economic context, and eliminates factors to arrive at his rosy $3K-$4.5K numbers (while suggesting that poorer families could get by on even less per child). It all sounds suspiciously like Peter MacKay’s public estimates for the F-35, which left out operational costs.

No wonder young couples are simply choosing not to have children. As a commentator on CBC yesterday from the Vanier Institute for the Family wryly noted,, two glasses of milk a day would account for 10% of the Sarlo-costed annual expenses for a child. “Please, may I have some more?” No.

As for the additional housing costs that having a child may require, he just wishes them away:

[A] lower income couple that cannot afford a house may or may not require additional space when they have an infant child. More space may be needed for toddlers and school age children if the family remains in an apartment. But, that family may, by then, be in a different financial situation. It is not clear what, if any, extra amount needs to be assigned for housing costs.

And the increased “operating costs?” Fuel, hot water and so on? Well, he says, we should count them, but he never quite gets around to it.

The Fraser Institute—which we’ve been subsidizing with our taxes since 1974, by the way, as a charitable organization—is what passes for the intellectual voice of conservatism in this country. But all of its fancy number-magic won’t make it easier for young parents struggling in today’s harsh economic climate to raise healthy, well-adjusted children.

Go ask one about the sacrifices involved. But, out of simple kindness if not self-preservation, don’t show them the study and tell them to tighten their belts.

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Who are those people pounding the pavement outside Toronto’s Plaza Hotel, whom the owner called “animals?” They are workers with little or no hope for the long-term, decently-paid jobs that many of us take for granted, living a precarious existence. If you want to know how many of them there are these days, take one Plaza Hotel and multiply by a very big number.

The low-wage workers at the Plaza are at least unionized. Largely due to their Steelworkers Union and to the Ontario Federation of Labour, the public is becoming more aware of the appalling working conditions there.

But this is just the tip of the cheap-labour iceberg.

I’ve posted before about the Temporary Foreign Workers program, a part of this new race to the bottom, in which the Harper government has been complicit. A victory or two have been won in that area, but there is much more to the problem than offshore workers entering Canada on a government program. In some ways, that was just a matter of domestic Canadian cheap labour being edged out of jobs by foreign cheaper labour.

Take the North American fast-food service industry, for example. It used to be that this was a good sector for young people to find a job for a while, and then move on. Now more adults than teens are asking if you want fries with that, and they’re in it for the long haul.

The new employees of this largely non-union sector are more experienced and better educated than formerly, but their wages and benefits don’t reflect that. Small wonder, as we have seen recently in Halifax with coffee-shop baristas, and in the US with employees of McDonald’s and other franchises, that these workers are beginning to look to unionization—and a substantial increase in the minimum wage—as a way of making their circumstances comparatively less precarious.

Would this make hamburgers, coffee and fried chicken too expensive? That’s always the scare-story put about by the anti-union types. But it’s not founded upon fact:

Several studies show that raising the minimum wage would have minimal effects on the industry as a whole. One letter signed by more than 100 economists and published by the University of Massachusetts said that raising the minimum wage to $10.50 would increase the price of a Big Mac by a nickel. Another study shows that doubling the salaries and benefits of all of McDonald’s employees would add 68 cents to each Big Mac.

Perhaps one of the more comical aspects of the corporate fightback was the spectacle of McDonald’s solemnly informing its low-wage employees how to budget. The bosses’ scheme works perfectly—if the minimum wage is doubled, and you can do without water, clothing, gas, heat and child care.

Are low wages the natural cost of working for a living wage in the service sector these days? Well, no:

Consider Costco and Wal-Mart’s Sam’s Club, which compete fiercely on low-price merchandise. Among warehouse retailers, Costco…is number one, accounting for about 50% of the market. Sam’s Club…is number two, with about 40% of the market.

…A 2005 New York Times article by Steven Greenhouse reported that at $17 an hour, Costco’s average pay is 72% higher than Sam’s Club’s ($9.86 an hour).

On the benefits side, 82% of Costco employees have health-insurance coverage, compared with less than half at Wal-Mart.

…In return for its generous wages and benefits, Costco gets one of the most loyal and productive workforces in all of retailing, and, probably not coincidentally, the lowest shrinkage (employee theft) figures in the industry….Costco’s stable, productive workforce more than offsets its higher costs.

A cheap labour strategy doesn’t work. It costs just about everybody. Costco knows this from experience, and has resisted calls to lower its wages and benefits.

So the push-back against impoverishing workers is not only a union concern, although we can certainly play a lead role in it. But we in the labour movement can’t do that by focusing too narrowly. We need to be part of a wider movement to defend the right to a living, dignified wage and secure employment for everyone. After all, it’s our whole society that is at stake here—and surely that makes it everybody’s fight.


The subject: REVP-NCR Larry Rousseau is seeking the nomination for the NDP in the Montreal riding of Bourassa. Obviously we wish him well. But check out the Ottawa Citizen’s coverage of this announcement.

The print edition ran the sub-hed, “Will give Tories election fodder, expert says.” We see this all the time in the media, so often that we just take it for granted: some authority or other telling us what’s what.

But what is this “expert” saying, and what are his credentials for saying it?

In fact there are two “experts” cited in the article: one is Brooke Jeffrey, “a professor of political science at Concordia University with ties to the Liberal party.” Kudos, at least, to the Citizen for that last tidbit. We are told that NDP candidate Julie Demers came close to unseating Liberal Denis Coderre in 2011, the narrowest escape he’s ever had, but this Liberal “expert” says it would be a bad idea if she ran again. Well, sure it would.

The second “expert” is Professor Ian Lee, of Carleton University.

The Citizen doesn’t tell us that Lee ran for the Progressive Conservatives in Ottawa-Centre when that party was a thing, and among other things was a huge fan of Margaret Thatcher. But of somewhat more importance, Lee has no expertise at all in the subject on which he is pronouncing. Check out his credentials for yourselves.

Yet here we go:

According to Ian Lee, a Carleton University professor and political and business analyst, Rousseau’s decision to run for the NDP confirms a long-running subtext of the Conservative government’s message.

“When a person at a very senior level in a union runs for the NDP, it allows for the Conservatives to say, ‘See, those unions really are tied at the hip to the NDP, and when you vote for the NDP you vote for the unions,’” Lee said. “And I think in the 2015 federal elections, it will be one of the issues you are going to see the Conservatives use to differentiate themselves.”

But Lee also said that when someone like Rousseau runs for office, it’s a paradoxical win-win situation for each party. He said Rousseau’s union ties will appeal to the NDP base.

Now, on one level this is pretty obvious stuff—nearly any reader could make observations like that, with or without “expertise.” But it plants a seed: unions carry a negative aura that could cost the NDP, even if party stalwarts are OK with it.

Lee, as it happens, dislikes unions intensely, and public workers even more. That’s led him into problems in the past, as when he stated in a Citizen op-ed earlier this year that these workers received full payout of sick leave upon retirement.

Here’s what he said:

Many were likely even more astonished to learn that federal public servants can build up a bank of unused sick leave that the government must pay out to the employee upon retirement.

And when enough folks complained to the Citizen, this is how he amended that statement:

Many were likely even more astonished to learn that federal public servants can build up a bank of unused sick leave that effectively encourages public servants to use up their sick leave because it cannot be monetized upon retirement.

One is left simply open-mouthed by such blatant intellectual dishonesty. Lee was also a booster of C-377, the anti-union bill that the Senate recently gutted.

So Lee has lots of attitude—but no more expertise in labour relations or unions than someone off the street (and it shows). He’s an academic in a different field who, after 25 years of teaching, is still an assistant professor. Yet the Citizen goes on citing him as an authority anyway.

What we’re getting here might be called bias by proxy. The reporter would never editorialize like that directly, but Lee, the imported “expert,” will clue us in. Unions are secretive organizations; union connections are a bad thing. Public workers are overcompensated.

The Citizen needn’t bother writing anti-union, anti-public sector editorials of their own. All they have to do is let Lee and other “experts” do the job for them, in the context of so-called straight news reporting. It’s left up to us to read critically. And when we do, we can clearly see what’s going on—literally under our noses.

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The Conservative government’s all-out war on union rights has barely begun. Here’s what the fast-approaching Fall is looking like.

The infamous Bill C-377 may have been stopped in its tracks this summer by the Senate, but Stephen Harper has vowed to bring it back when Parliament reconvenes. On top of that, a new anti-union bill is coming down the pike, C-525, also posing as a “private member’s bill.”

Senator Hugh Segal made a monumental speech against C-377, he skewered the obviously discriminatory, union-busting nature of the Bill:

If this is to apply to trade unions, why would it not apply to rotary clubs, the Fraser Institute, Christian, Muslim and Jewish congregations across Canada, the Council of Chief Executives, local car dealers or the many farming groups, like the cattlemen’s associations or the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, all of whom do great work? How about local constituency associations, food banks, soup kitchens, or anglers and hunters clubs?

But Segal also warned of “right-to-work legislation that is being proposed in the other place as a private member’s bill.” While C-525 doesn’t abolish the Rand formula (but you’d better believe that the latter won’t be long in coming), it stacks the deck against unionization in Canada.

As anyone who has done any workplace organizing knows, employers are not usually welcoming when their employees start up a unionization drive. You go one-on-one, usually off-site, getting cards signed until you get enough for a vote, presently 35% under the Canada Labour Code. If you win the subsequent vote, you’re unionized.

C-525 changes the rules for all employees falling under the Canada Labour Code, the Public Service Labour Relations Act and the Parliamentary Employees Staff Relations Act. It sets a very high threshold for even having a certification vote in the first place—45% of the bargaining unit—but goes on to require that more than 50% of the entire unit, not just of those who actually take part in the vote, must support unionization.

In other words, every abstention is counted as a vote against the union.

It gets far worse, however, for those who come under the Public Service Labour Relations Act. If some employees decide that they want to decertify, and can satisfy the Board that they represent 45% of the bargaining unit, a vote must be held. But it’s not a vote to decertify—it’s a vote to stay certified. So, once again, every abstention is counted as a vote against the union.

But here’s the kicker for the PSLRA folks: a majority in favour of the union won’t save it. If the union doesn’t win 55% of the vote, it is automatically decertified:

  1. If, after conducting the representation vote referred to in section 95, the Board is satisfied that at least 45% of the employees in the bargaining unit have not voted in favour of continued representation by the employee organization, it must revoke the certification of the employee organization as the bargaining agent.

Sometimes it gets just a little too obvious, eh?

Canada’s Constitution and the Charter of Rights, which guarantee freedom of association, evidently won’t be allowed to stand in the way of the Harper government. Make no mistake: its opposition to unions is visceral. It will use any means, fair or foul, to crush them. And if we let them get away with it, the whole country will eventually end up under a Mississippi-style “right to work” labour regime. A hundred years or more of hard-won labour rights will be out the window.

This is the Harper vision: workers no longer able to join together to speak with one voice. Government and business having their way with us. It’s legal divide and rule—and I do mean rule.

Against this campaign to violate the rights of every single worker in Canada, backed by right-wing politicians, corporations, business groups, media drones and various well-heeled shills (I’m looking at you, MERIT), we have only one stark choice before us: to fight back.

Are we up for it?

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Girl power

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For those familiar with the CBC’s union-hating Kevin O’Leary, the video, above, is frankly a treat to watch. The man who once called Pulitzer prizewinner Chris Hedges a “nutbar” on air (the CBC had to apologize to Hedges), was kicked to the curb by a 14-year-old girl.

There are widely differing opinions on genetically-modified food—the topic at hand—but one doesn’t have to be anti-GMO to admire Rachel Parent’s coolness under fire, her unwavering articulateness, and her command of the facts. O’Leary was condescending and offensive, calling her a “lobbyist” and a “shill,” but she didn’t stray off-message for the entire interview. She even seemed to get O’Leary’s agreement that GMO food should be labelled.

Amanda Lang, O’Leary’s partner on the program, tried to rescue the dragon from the maiden, but without success. He was done like dinner.

Parent is no lobbyist, of course. She is neither registered as one or, for that matter, paid to express her opinions—unlike O’Leary. With her, what you see is what you get: a poised, courageous young woman with strong, informed opinions. One of the next generation of leaders, folks, setting a high standard, and giving us older folks yet another reason to be optimistic about the future.

A pleasure to watch you in action, Rachel. Brava!

Robyn Benson, PSAC

The Wayward Senators: the series

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This segment of the popular long-running Senate soap opera is a bit like watching kids in a nursery school:

Pammy: OK, I have the cookie. Here it is back. But it’s not fair!

Teacher: We followed the cookie crumbs right to you, but a lot of them were missing.

Pammy: Davie said I could get wid of the cwumbs.

Davie: Did not! Only the iwwelevant cwumbs.

Teacher: Off you go to the principal’s office, Pammie.

Some Honourable Toddlers: Now you’re going to get it!

The Deloitte report on Senator Pamela Wallin’s huge Senate expense bill is out. Senators Wallin and David Tkachuk are now flatly contradicting each other over the records she altered. The forensic auditors are unhappy. Senators, their august institution already under the glare of a thousand unwelcome spotlights, are unhappy, too. A whack of money, improperly spent, will be paid back by Wallin, who, guaranteed, will be gnashing her teeth as she does so.

Meanwhile, in another part of the forest, Senator Mike Duffy had Stephen Harper’s then right-hand man, Nigel Wright, cut him a cheque, but now may be facing criminal charges as the outcome of an RCMP investigation. Two others with questionable housing allowance claims (Mac Harb and Patrick Brazeau) have lawyered up. The RCMP has shown considerable interest in them, too. In fact, the Brazeau investigation has now broadened to include personal income tax filings.

What an upstanding collection of sober second thinkers.

Will Duffy, Brazeau and Harb actually get charged with anything? And will Senator Pierre-Hughes Boisvenu marry the girl? Wallin’s file has now been forwarded by the Senate to the RCMP as well. Don’t hold your breath on that one: unlike for us little people, paying back what she improperly took in the first place may be enough to bring closure.

But stay tuned, folks, and make plenty of popcorn.

[Photo of Pamela Wallin, who hosted the Canadian version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” in 2000. Via Dan Gardner]

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Back in May I blogged about the precarious position of too many Canadians after retirement, and the need to reform CPP/QPP.

To recap quickly: nearly two out of three Canadians have no workplace pension plan. The average payout is about $500/month—less for a minimum-wage worker.

The CLC has made a strong case for doubling the CPP/QPP, to stave off destitution for many senior Canadians. And most Canadians happen to agree that the payout should be enhanced—and are willing to pay increased premiums to make it so.

There was supposed to be a meeting of the federal and provincial finance ministers in June to discuss the future of CPP/QPP. It didn’t happen, although pension reform doesn’t appear to be off the table.

But the Canadian Federation of Independent Business has launched a preemptive attack on the notion of increasing the pension. In an accompanying press release, the CFIB links any CPP/QPP improvements to “reform” of public sector pensions—meaning a good old-fashioned slashing of pension benefits for municipal, provincial and federal public workers.

The “bridge benefit” that has aroused the CFIB’s ire is no giveaway, as it suggests—it’s bought and paid for by joint contributions, like the rest of the pension that public workers earn during the course of their employment. And it has nothing to do with the urgent need for CPP/QPP improvements.

But worse than this red herring is the arrant hypocrisy of an organization whose members operate small businesses with low to minimum-waged employees and no company pension plans. When those workers retire, they can look forward to somewhere around $5000 per year in CPP/QPP benefits, plus an Old Age Security payment of $6600 payable when they reach the age of 65 (which, as we know, is to be raised to 67 as per the last Harper budget).

To avoid falling into even worse poverty than what is facing them, these seniors are also eligible for a Guaranteed Income Supplement that for them would amount to a little over $2500 per year.

That GIS is taxpayer-funded, and I guess you can see where I’m going with this. In effect, the taxpayers are subsidizing the same small businesses whose organization is demanding that their employer contributions to CPP/QPP not be increased. The CFIB, in other words, represents a number of shops whose employees are paid substandard wages with no in-house pension plans, and who can get away with it because the taxpayer is topping up the low CPP/QPP payouts their employees receive on retirement. But they’re complaining bitterly about a “tax levy” (increased employer contributions) to improve those payouts.

That’s neither right nor fair. They simply have no moral case to make for keeping CPP/QPP pensions at their current low levels. I suspect they know it—which accounts for their diversionary attacks on public sector pension plans.

The Canadian Labour Congress, meanwhile, continues to press for CPP/QPP expansion. No more time should be wasted: the finance ministers must convene their promised meeting as soon as possible to get the process of reform underway. Millions of Canadian seniors are depending upon the outcome of these discussions. The CFIB and its allies must not be allowed to stand between them and the dignified, secure retirement that they deserve.

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It’s time to turn up the heat on Vladimir Putin’s Russia for its hateful anti-gay laws, which came into force this past June. It makes “homosexualist propaganda” illegal, in such broad terms that it effectively criminalizes such things as wearing an LGBT pin, or the same-sex holding of hands in public.

LGBT Russians are being terrorized, beaten, arrested, tortured and murdered for the “crime” of being who they are, while Russia, still pretending to be a civilized nation, prepares to host the Winter Olympics in Sochi next February. Police have openly sided with violent anti-gay mobs for years: the new anti-gay law that has just come into effect merely adds an official gloss to the unspeakable persecution of this minority by Russian authorities, the Russian Orthodox Church, and far-right vigilantes.

Russia is right down there with Uganda, where, thanks to ceaseless proselytizing by far-right American fundamentalists, the government is poised to pass a law making homosexuality punishable by death.

Try to imagine the sheer courage (and desperation) of those who dare to raise their voices and stand up for their rights in either country. These are heroes, and by now some of those taking part in their gay pride marches could be martyrs as well. The notion that any nation that persecutes its own citizens with such ferocity might host the International Olympic Games should be unthinkable. But the International Olympic Committee is still mousing around the issue—and there’s a grim precedent for that.

There are uneasy echoes here of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which helped to give Adolf Hitler a sought-after respectability. Then, as now, voices were raised and a boycott was urged, but the Nazi-enablers in the IOC prevailed, with its president, Avery Brundage, asking aloud why a mere “Jew-Nazi altercation” should prevent the show from going on, and complaining about a “Jewish-Communist conspiracy” to keep the US out of the games.

The victims of officially-authorized hatred are different this time, but hate is hate. It’s good, therefore, to hear Foreign Minister John Baird speak up so uncompromisingly about the anti-gay pogroms in Russia.

Now Baird himself has been subjected to a vicious homophobic attack by a fringe “women’s group” (they don’t speak for me or for any woman I know) that had earlier enjoyed the blessing of the Harper government. What goes around comes around—unfortunately for the foreign affairs minister. He has my sympathy.

But Baird’s forthright comments, in any case, are not enough. Canada, and other countries, need to send Russia a stark message: we will not enable hate and violence by lending the Putin government a veneer of approval that hosting the Olympics will bring. If it is still too early to campaign for a boycott, as some, including Baird and the Official Opposition, are presently arguing, it’s not too soon to raise the possibility, at least, particularly given the brazen promise by the Russian government to enforce their laws against athletes and visiting spectators. (Recognizing its PR error, the Russian sports minister is now trying to walk that back—but is anyone seriously reassured?)

Tens of thousands of people have already signed a petition to the IOC to repatriate the games to Vancouver. It’s hard to disagree with the intent here. International diplomatic pressure may yet persuade Russia to enter the 21st century, and I hope it does, but, one way or another, human decency—and the lessons of history—demand our on-going solidarity. This time, let’s not look away.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Young unionists

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Anyone who thinks that unions are a thing of the past, once necessary but not anymore—how many times have we heard that?—should have a chat with Debra Moore.

Jeannie Baldwin, REVP-Atlantic, recently blogged about the unionization of the Just Us! Cafe in Halifax, and the spreading drive to organize coffee shops elsewhere in the city. Here’s Moore—who happens to be the founder of the Just Us! chain:

I don’t hear them focused on money, I don’t hear them focused on benefits…I hear them focused on, ‘Well, we’ve been to university, we’ve got stuff to contribute. How can we do that?’ I hear, too, that they feel vulnerable and the union gives them somebody behind them.

Up until the last few years the retail world was more about people who wanted part-time work, who wanted transient work. That was what that industry has been built on but of course that’s not our reality.

Kudos to Moore for finally, er, waking up and smelling the coffee. Unions don’t spring from nowhere, and they don’t get imposed from above. They arise as a force against unequal power in the workplace, and, more generally, they are a natural pushback against inequalities in the economic system as a whole.

Young people today are facing often bleak job prospects, even with a university education. Low-paying jobs in the service sector look better than they once did, and, as Moore notes, they are no longer confined to part-timers and transients. Small wonder, then, that college graduates looking forward to years in the same service occupation rather than “what they trained for” are motivated to improve their working environment. Despite the CBC report just linked, there is no sense of “entitlement” here, but rather a determination to make the best of things.

And clearly that includes organizing:

Sabrina Butt, 26, is a recently unionized sales associate at a Toronto-area H & M store. She is among the cohort of young workers entering the labour market in a soft economy, looking at their after-school retail and service jobs as long-term employment, and hunkering down.

“You come in thinking that it’s just convenient with your school schedule and so on and so forth but I started when I was in college, and I’m still there,” she said.

The proportion of Canadian workers belonging to labour unions declined considerably since the 1980s, but has remained stable since the late 1990s, at slightly less than one-third of the work force. In 2012, the rate of unionization went up slightly, to 31.5 per cent from 31.2 per cent the year before. Part-time jobs have been cited as the source of recent unionized job gains.

Sister Butt is obviously an up-and-coming union leader. This summer she helped organize retail employees at a Sirens store in Brampton: they joined UFCW Canada Local 175 just last month.

“Having Sirens on board with the union is a huge step,” she said. “It shows that there can be young leaders and not all hope is lost because these are young girls in their twenties and they want to make a change in their workplace and that fear didn’t stop them. They were able to take that step.”

Unions in the private sector are getting the message: it’s time to get creative, to find new organizing strategies that will appeal to millennium-generation workers. But a key part of any such strategy must be to encourage those workers to speak out and to lead themselves.

We can already see the results of that approach in the public sector. The PSAC regional youth committees, formed just over a year ago, are a growing, vibrant presence in our union. The PSAC as a whole is already benefiting from their energy and ideas. But lest I sound patronizing here, let me clarify: I’m looking at members and activists of a certain age, including myself, and suggesting that we listen to younger unionists, learn from them and adapt.

Youth members are rightly impatient with the “that’s the way we’ve always done it” approach. We were, too! So let’s be open and welcoming to the new, and (a tougher task) be unafraid to question the old. These young workers will make us challenge ourselves, and that’s never a bad thing: given what we are facing today, quite frankly, our survival as a union may depend upon it.

How does one even begin to honour the memory of the larger-than-life Burnley Allan “Rocky” Jones? Jones was an activist’s activist, a person of prodigious commitment and energy, who struggled tirelessly against discrimination, war, poverty and injustice for half a century. A brilliant organizer and public speaker, Rocky could best be described as a radical pragmatist who created institutions that will long survive him, and who reached out to the community as a whole, building bridges and fostering cooperation.

For a glimpse of his rich humanity, listen to his TEDx talk, above. He speaks with quiet passion and authority about breaking down social barriers—not just the ones imposed from the outside, but those within one’s own mind.

And here’s a flashback of an extraordinarily articulate young Jones in 1966, when the Black community of Africville was being demolished by the Halifax municipality, its residents literally carted away in dump trucks.

Jones became politically active in 1965 while he was living in Toronto, and he just never stopped after that. He didn’t merely agitate—he built. Oh, how he built:

Jones was a founding member of The Black United Front of Nova Scotia, National Black Coalition of Canada, Dalhousie University Transition Year Program (where he taught for 10 years), Dalhousie Law School Indigenous Blacks and Mi’kmaq Program, African Canadian Liberation Movement, African Canadian Caucus of Nova Scotia and the Nova Scotia Project….Along with his wife at the time, he formed Kwacha House, Eastern Canada’s first inner-city self-help program for the culturally diverse, lower socio-economic population. Jones created the Black Historical and Educational Research Organization (HERO Project), a pioneering oral history project on Black culture.

A strong advocate of prisoners’ rights, Jones was involved in the establishment of the Black Inmates Association and the Native Brotherhood of Dorchester Penitentiary and Springhill Institution. Jones developed programs for women in the Kingston Prison for Women, Halifax County Correctional Centre and in the community.He developed a wilderness experience program for ex-inmates and oversaw two production companies also staffed by ex-inmates. Jones was the Executive Director of Real Opportunities for Prisoner Employment (ROPE), a self-help organization for ex-inmates.

The head spins. He chaired Ujamaa, a major Halifax economic cooperative project. After the age of 50, he earned a law degree from Dalhousie University and became a successful (and, needless to say, controversial) lawyer.

In 2004 he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Guelph. In 2010, he was invested in the Order of Nova Scotia, a long-overdue honour. Not bad for a man once considered a dangerous revolutionary, and followed around for years by the RCMP, who accused him of teaching eight-year-olds to make Molotov cocktails, and otherwise stirring up (in their words) Nova Scotia’s “docile colored population.”

He was still speaking out forcefully this year. During a guest lecture at St. Francis Xavier University in January, he suggested that staff hiring there, and the curriculum, might still be discriminatory. True to form, he was not antagonistic: “I’m not saying all of this to start a fight with St. F.X. I’m saying this to say: ‘Look — we need your support. We cannot (eradicate bigotry) alone.’”

“But this is what happens when you start speaking out against the powers in place,” he said. “You become a threat.”

Almost inevitably, there were PSAC connections. In 1996, some of our members and their allies in Halifax occupied the Gottingen Street Canada Employment Centre, slated for closure during a period of Liberal downsizing. They held on for 122 days, and Rocky was in the thick of it, acting as a spokesperson, his powerful oratory and his sheer personal presence commanding considerable respect. Working for Legal Aid at the time, he also provided legal advice, and would drop in regularly to the CEC just to hang out with the occupiers. He was a guest speaker at a PSAC course on non-violent resistance in Ottawa, and his sister, Lynn Jones, was a prominent PSAC activist.

For those who are not sufficiently impressed by this sketch of his record of achievement, here are some more links.

Rocky will be sorely missed, but he would be the first person to insist, perhaps a little impatiently, that we just carry on, organizing and building a better future for everyone. And that, rather than mourning his passing, is no doubt the best way we can honour his memory.

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