September 2013 Archives

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Communities in the dangerous dark

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The latest unsettling news about the Lac-Mégantic disaster is that the contents of the cars were mislabelled. The crude oil was “misidentified as a less volatile substance,” says the Transportation Safety Board—which explains why the contents caught fire so quickly. This mislabelling, we are told by one expert, is “routine.”

One of Transport Minister Linda Raitt’s officials, Don Ross of the Transportation Safety Board—the lead investigator of the disaster—suggests that this just might be a serious problem:

“The packing group [indicating degree of volatility] was one of the considerations in selecting a container, which also calls into question the adequacy of Class 111 tank cars when transporting large quantities of low-flashpoint flammable liquids.”

Indeed it does. These DOT-111 tank cars have a poor record; the US National Transportation Safety Board has been warning for some time that they almost always breach on derailment. When they are carrying something with the same volatility as gasoline, the results of a catastrophic derailment are hardly surprising.

Well, now for the good news. The folks responsible for the mislabelling may be fined. And the dangerous Dot-111 cars will be replaced at some point with spanking new ones. There are likely to be new rules about braking, and leaving a trainful of flammable substances unattended on a main track. And then life—except, of course, for the 47 dead in Lac-Mégantic—will go on.

But now we learn that the Harper government is not yet ready to inform people of exactly what is in the tanker cars rumbling through their towns. Federal Transport Minister Lisa Raitt, we are told, is aware of provincial concerns but is not ready to “commit to the idea.”

Mislabelling dangerous goods is bad enough. Raitt’s refusal to alert local officials when dangerous materials are passing through their villages, towns and cities, however, affects the inhabitants of every municipality in Canada with a level crossing. Her knee-jerk fondness for secrecy, so typical of the government in which she serves, runs directly counter to the public interest. Enough: it’s time to turn on the lights.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Truth and Reconciliation

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That was some crowd in Vancouver, 70,000 strong, on Canada’s first “reconciliation walk” this past Sunday. It was a grand gesture of solidarity between residential school survivors, their families, and their allies. In BC they take this sort of thing very seriously: the Union of BC Municipalities proclaimed 2013 as the Year of Reconciliation.

The crowds were addressed by Bernice King, the daughter of Martin Luther King: “Struggle is a never-ending process and freedom is never really won, you earn it and you win it in every generation,” she said.

This was not a First Nations-only event by any means: “Thousands of people from all walks of life, from every colour and every culture, are all here as Canadians to share the First Nation people’s pain and healing,” said Navnit Singh, who survived the 1984 Sikh massacre in India.

The organizing group, which put on a whole week of activities, was Reconciliation Canada, a collaboration between the Indian Residential School Survivor’s Society (IRSSS) and Tides Canada Initiatives (TCI). Among other things, the week provided a forum for survivors to share their harrowing stories.

Reconciliation Canada is not to be confused with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which played a major role in the week’s program. The TRC has been around since 2008, part of the Residential Schools Settlement Agreement reached between residential school survivors, aboriginal organizations, churches and the Government of Canada. It got off to a rocky start, but began operations in earnest in June, 2009. With a budget of $60 million, and a five-year mandate for which the clock started ticking in 2009, the TRC has been working against time, while facing serious obstacles.

You can’t have reconciliation without truth and transparency. And the truth of life in the residential system is contained in the experiences of survivors, but also in literally millions of documents.

But the TRC encountered strong resistance from the Harper government when it tried to access those documents. It actually had to go to court last year to win that access, to what should have been theirs to see from the get-go. Only this past January, by order of the court, was the Commission finally allowed to review these important archives. But, meanwhile, time has been getting short, and the government has made no move to extend the Commission’s timeframe beyond next year. There are literally millions of documents to be examined: as things stand, it will likely prove physically impossible to go through all of them and report on deadline. Some paltry resources provided by the government to assist are too little, too late.

This sort of thing puts genuine reconciliation out of reach. Harper’s historic apology in 2008 was supposed to mark a turning-point in this regard. But ever since, it’s just been business as usual.

Not only did the government make the Commission’s work more difficult. It continued to play the old Great White Father role in Attawapiskat, until a court told them to stop it. Instead of recognizing that First Nations children are receiving less social support than off-reserve children in the rest of Canada, it’s been fighting a long court battle, costing millions of taxpayer dollars, to keep things just as they are. The children’s advocate, Cindy Blackstock, has been stalked by government officials, and the government, caught at it, has refused to stop the surveillance. Peaceful protesters have experienced the same thing:

At one point, a group of developers created an Idle No More app that allowed activists to share information and plan protests, flash mobs and round dances. Deputy Minister of Aboriginal Affairs Michael Wernick contacted his communications director to see if the office could surreptitiously piggyback on the app to get its own message across. “Is it in any way feasible to get our backgrounders into the flow of this app without the appearance of [government] ringers calling into an open-line show?” he asks in one document.

A promising move towards reconciliation? You decide.

More recently, the government has rejected calls by the UN Human Rights Council for a comprehensive national review of violence against Aboriginal women. But this wasn’t a matter of human-rights violators on the Council like Iran and Belarus blowing smoke, as opponents of the UNHRC always dismissively claim. That call for a review also came from countries like Switzerland, Norway, and New Zealand.

This pattern of government neglect, obstruction and suspicion is hardly consistent with the spirit of conciliation present in BC on the weekend. And yet the media seem resistant to putting these matters under a microscope. In Ontario, for example, news coverage of Aboriginal issues makes up half a percent of all news coverage—and is generally negative. The media could help to broker dialogue and reconciliation, but they have largely declined to do so, preferring instead to focus on crises and manufactured scandals.

The positive forces for change and for healing and reconciliation in Canada are, judging by that 4-kilometre-long procession of people in Vancouver, alive and growing. But we’re going to need a lot more truth, not to mention plain good faith, before there will be the final and lasting reconciliation our country so desperately needs. How many more walks will it take?

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Labour on the line

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Even a paranoid,” Henry Kissinger once remarked, “can have enemies.” There are times, as I see the anti-union clouds gather, that I wonder—can things really be that bad?

C-377. C-525. Trial balloons about abolishing the Rand formula. A law requiring fair wages to be paid by federal government contractors, repealed. Destructive games played with the collective bargaining process. Ontario Liberals joining with Progressive Conservatives to gut a union agreement.

Well, now, that’s quite a bit of anti-union bias by government in a fairly short time. No paranoid delusions here, but actual legislative initiatives.

Yes, things are really that bad, and they’re liable to get worse. Check this out. Government agencies running around on our dime to get people to say what they want to hear? Say it isn’t so.

“Unionization, particularly with respect to the manufacturing industry, and access to skilled workers were the labour issues most frequently identified by the key informants,” the report concluded; “Canada’s unionization rate is 31.2% nationally and 27.8 % in Ontario as compared to 11.4% in the U.S. Especially in the manufacturing sector this discrepancy is a concern for investors.”

There’s no real shock there. But it’s virtually impossible to de-link this oh-so-convenient “report” from C-525, an anti-union bill coming up this Fall that would make it possible to decertify a union when only a minority of the workers want to see their union go.

Now, we know this stuff is rubbish. Unionization is good, not bad, for growth and the economy. Higher union wages translate into more money spent in the community, creating more jobs and prosperity. In the US, so called “right-to-work” states like Oklahoma have miserable wages and shrinking economies. But in the short term—which is all that some employers and investors are interested in—anything that gets in the way of a large, quick profit should be removed. When too many companies pursue that strategy, however, they are weakening our communities and the economy, and, in the long run, even hurting their own interests.

“The biggest problem I’ve met with by employers is labour,” says Conservative Blaine Calkins, the backbench MP who proposed Bill C-525. Well, that’s blunt enough. Labour—that is, the working men and women of this country—are the enemy, according to this representative of a government busy compiling lists of them.

Now, it’s one thing to make windy and foolish speeches to the base. It’s quite another to use legislation as a bludgeon against workers’ basic right to organize—to turn the clock all the way back to pre-Confederation times. Our founding (Conservative) Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald, after all, referred to anti-union laws as “barbarous”: and it seems that the barbarians are even now at the gates.

“Stay out of politics,” demand conservative politicians—who have no problem at all getting political with us. So, no, thank you, we won’t. If the effectiveness, even the existence, of our unions is being threatened, we owe it to our members to get politically involved to put a stop to that. But more importantly, the members owe it to themselves.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

"Cheap labour? When I was a kid...

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…I wasn’t paid for my work at all!” One imagines, into the not-so-distant future, today’s youth telling stories like that to disbelieving youngsters of their own. Welcome to the “unpaid intern” racket.

Between 100,000 and 300,000 Canadians now work as unpaid interns. It’s impossible to be more precise, because much of this happens well below the radar. But every now and again, the public gets a whiff of what this is all about. A snazzy hotel wants grunt-work done? Take on—heavens no, not “hire”—an intern. Want to stop paying your staff? Replace them with unpaid interns, as Ontario Progressive Conservative MPP Rod Jackson did. (Not true, says Jackson. They’re “volunteers.” If there’s a practical difference here, though, I can’t see it.)

This wasn’t meant to happen. Internships were supposed to be a way of offering on-site training, mostly to young people, getting them job-ready. It was value-added for the intern, and supposedly provided little or no tangible benefit to the employer.

But of course it didn’t work out that way. Instead, for far too many people, it’s become a system of less-than-voluntary servitude. The stick is high youth unemployment. The carrot is future employment down the road, with all that table-cleaning training. And you’ll get pie in the sky when you die.

Is this even legal? Well, sort of. It’s a grey area: the law across the land is less than clear. The Ontario Employment Standards Act allows it, for example, but with strict limitations. Interns can’t displace regular employees, or do the same kind of work as they do. Employers are not supposed to derive a monetary benefit, and aren’t permitted to offer the interns the incentive of a job at the end of their internship period. Otherwise, those interns would legally be employees in training, with the same rights to wages and benefits as other employees.

But this growing trend—even the federal government makes use of interns—is unregulated and uninspected. There are no legal penalties for exploiting interns? And there’s a virtually inexhaustible supply of hungry young graduates who will jump at even the remotest chance to land a real job someday. It’s as though employers have discovered the human resources version of the Horn of Plenty.

Some interns are fighting back, but at this point they’re more or less on their own. This may change: a non-profit organization called the Canadian Intern Association, launched by law student Claire Seaborn, advocates against unpaid internships and misused paid ones, and NDP MP Andrew Cash is about to introduce a Private Members Bill seeking a coherent approach to the internship problem across Canada.

But problem it remains. Make no mistake—employers presently feel free to use interns in any capacity they wish, even filling in for regular employees when they are off work, or making them work overtime, to the danger-point. The young man who died recently in a car-crash after working hours of overtime on a “practicum,” assigned by his college as a diploma requirement, had been told by his boss that he wouldn’t graduate if he didn’t comply.

This unpaid labour is only a part of the fast-growing “precarious work” syndrome that has become a key and growing element of our current economy. According to a study done earlier this year, for example, half of all adult workers in the Toronto-Hamilton area are working full or part-time with no benefits or job security, or in term or casual employment. This kind of work has increased by 50% in the last two decades, negatively affecting families and communities. And there’s no sign that this trend is slowing.

The free labour of interns is just one component of this. Labour lawyer Andrew Langille points out that internships are replacing entry-level positions, resulting in young people working for years in unpaid employment. In his words, “exploitation of unpaid interns has reached epidemic levels.”

To be blunt, unpaid internship is a lousy idea from the get-go. Employers don’t bring interns on board out of the goodness of their hearts: they almost invariably do so to get free productive labour out of them. They are presently able to prey unimpeded on a young and vulnerable segment of the workforce, who often feel they have no choice but to work for free in hopes that somewhere down the line they might land a real, honest-to-goodness job. You know, one of those old-fashioned ones where they actually pay you.

You want interns? Pay ‘em. There’s a thought. And it ought to be the law.

Chris Aylward

Bangladesh: profit before decency

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Just a few short months ago, on April 24, a shoddily-built textile factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh collapsed. Cracks had appeared in the building in Rana Plaza the day before, but were ignored: the workers were ordered back on the job the next morning. 1,129 of them went to their deaths; more than twice that number were injured.

If you want a snapshot of where the families of the victims are today, watch the video, above. They’ve basically been left to rot. Kids are now forced to leave school to work in other sweatshops, after their parents were injured or killed. As for compensation? Surely the rich multinational companies that sourced from that factory, several of whose names you’ll recognize—Wal-mart, Benneton’s, J.C.Penney—would be all over that?

Yeah, right.

78% of what Bangladesh exports is cheap clothing, most of which is destined for the First World. It’s churned out by 3.6 million workers, of whom 80% are women. It’s a lucrative proposition for the corporations who source there: labour costs in that country are the lowest anywhere.

The last thing these corporate profit-machines might be expected to do, as they gainfully exploit cheap labour in these Third World sweatshops, is to accept responsibility for local factory conditions, and do the right thing. In fact, they can be predicted to resist cutting into their bottom line, and so they have.

As always, nothing being entirely black or white, there are honourable exceptions—casualties on a historic scale prompted Loblaw’s to react quickly and positively, and a Loblaw’s subsidiary, the British-based Primark Stores, paid initial compensation to the victims almost immediately, and is following up with more.

But those responsible actions merely serve to highlight the negligence of most of the other corporations involved. This month, during talks in Geneva sponsored by the International Labour Organization to deal with the on-going crisis, most of the invited corporations refused even to show up—only 9 out of 22, including Loblaw’s and Primark, bothered to attend. The gathering, unsurprisingly, produced nothing tangible. But there will be more meetings, comforting no doubt to the destitute families of those who died, and to the injured survivors and their families, all forced to make do in the meantime.

In the wake of the factory collapse, pressure has also been put on clothing retailers. Two major international labour centrals, Uni Global Union and IndustriALL, in collaboration with the National Garment Workers Federation in Bangladesh and several NGOs, drafted the “Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh,” and pressed hard through national affiliates to get the brands to sign. 87 have now complied. But Wal-Mart, Sears, J.C. Penney, Gap and Target have declined. Wal-Mart said it would expose the company to unlimited liability—and give unions too much power.

Even the compensation offered by the Bangladesh government is not being offered to everyone involved in the Rana Plaza tragedy. Desperate families are expected to produce the DNA of their loved ones literally out of the factory rubble to qualify for compensation. 300 bodies were buried without identification. DNA testing kits were offered by the US, and samples have been collected, but Bangladesh lacks the computer software required to do the matches. So hundreds, unable to comply with their government’s requirements, are being refused help, despite being able to prove that their family members worked at the factory.

Except for the much greater scale of injury and death, what happened in Bangladesh is reminiscent of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York in 1911. Eventually, a public outcry over the latter led to improved health and safety regulations and improved labour laws. One hopes that the carnage in Bangladesh might have the same long-term result, but there is obviously a considerable way to go, with so many powerful anti-union interests involved.

Maybe in the meanwhile the 1,129 dead in what is only the latest Third World factory disaster could be added to those remembered in an as-yet-unconstructed monument to the countless victims of capitalism. Fair’s fair.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Lies, damned lies and statistics

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Imagine you’re employed as a watchmaker. One day your employer collects all your tools and gives you a hammer and screwdriver instead. Brilliantly, you manage to fix maybe one or two watches. “See,” says the employer. “You didn’t need all that fancy stuff!”

That’s pretty much the position Statistics Canada was placed in by the Harper government when the fine-tuned long-form census was replaced by the voluntary National Household Survey. The former used sophisticated sampling techniques, permitting an accurate analysis of social and economic trends down to the community level. The latter used information from whoever happened to reply. The results? “The NHS slapped blurry goggles on our vision,” says one senior economist.

Let us pause for a moment to mourn the mathematical illiteracy of Christian Paradis, when he was still Minister of Industry this past May. From the horse’s mouth: “[M]ore Canadians responded to the National Household Survey than its predecessor, the mandatory long-form census.”

Well, uh, sure. The long-form census was sent to 20% of Canadian households. The NHS was sent to roughly 30% of Canadian households. The census had a response rate of 93.5%. Only 68.6% responded to the voluntary NHS. But yes, slightly more Canadians took part in an unscientific survey sent to 50% more households. Bravo, Minister.

And then a sideswipe: “Our government is committed to collecting statistical data while protecting Canadians’ privacy.” Did the previous long-form census fail to do that, as he suggests? Statistics Canada, in fact, has an unparalleled record in preserving the privacy of its sources—in fact, it’s mandated by law.

But on to the survey itself. What do people in the statistics business think of it?

“In some communities,” notes statistics professor David Bellhouese, “response rates were as low as 25 per cent, and a few even had a response rate of zero. Due to low response, data on First Nations was statistically compromised, and immigration statistics, which indicated that people from the Philippines were the largest segment of recent new arrivals, is flatly contradicted by Citizenship and Immigration’s own figures.

No wonder Statistics Canada, painfully aware of the shortcomings of the survey, attached a warning to its report that resembles, in longer form, the ones on cigarette packages—a “use at your own risk” message:

When comparing estimates from the 2006 Census long form and estimates from the 2011 National Household Survey (NHS) users should take into account the fact that the two sources represent different populations. The target population for the 2006 Census long form includes usual residents in collective dwellings and persons living abroad whereas the target population for the NHS excludes them. Moreover, the NHS estimates are derived from a voluntary survey and are therefore subject to potentially higher non‑response error than those derived from the 2006 Census long form.

When comparing income indicators from one source to another, users should be aware that the methodology of how the information was collected, the concepts used and response patterns can affect the comparability of income information. Given the sensitivity of most income indicators to such methodological differences, users should use caution when comparing income estimates from the NHS to other household income surveys, administrative data or 2006 or earlier censuses. In this analytical document, no comparisons to other data sources are presented. [Emphases added]

The NHS also indicates a significant rise in poverty in Canada, even despite the fact that the response rate from low-income wage-earners in such surveys tends to be relatively low. But the truth is that we really don’t know whether poverty is rising, decreasing or staying the same. Differing methodologies in the collection of data make the NHS unusable for comparison purposes, making it impossible to plot trends one way or the other.

The upshot of all this is that the data are too unreliable for the meaningful planning that the older, far more reliable census data permitted.

In 2011, then-Justice Minister Rob Nicholson defended a heavily-criticized tough-on-crime bill by saying: “We’re not governing on the basis of the latest statistics. We’re governing on the basis of what’s right….”

Now the government has confirmed that pesky matters like skewed data and low response rates won’t deter it from its ideological course. A near-universal chorus of disapproval from experts in the field, and the resignation of the Chief Statistician, didn’t matter a whit. Armed only with an invincible sense of its own righteousness, it directed Statistics Canada to collect flawed data and issue a flawed report. And it only cost the taxpayers an extra $22 million.

Sharon DeSousa

Happiness is a strong labour movement

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Although we’ve dropped a point since last year (now number 6 in the ranking), Canada is still a happy country, as shown in a recent report that ranks all countries on a “Happiness Index.” But one fact that doesn’t get much airplay: the even happier countries are all heavily unionized, with far less social inequality.


This isn’t a surprise; there is abundant documentation showing that high levels of unionization are linked to a country’s wealth and social security. Despite this link, which even the conservative World Bank has had to admit to, we continuously hear in the media that our economy would do better without unions.

Why is this message so prevalent then? Shouldn’t politicians, the media and business be championing for increasing union density? Well, unions fight for decent wages and benefits for our members, meaning that those at the top have to share some of that wealth created by our labour. Because of this, unions have been under attack for a long time and recently there has been an even greater push against organized labour.

We’ve all heard the arguments; wages are too high, we can’t afford pensions, workers have to expect less, etc. And these days there are more than a few politicians willing to promote this corporate agenda.

When the Harper government passed its huge omnibus Bill C-45 last year, rejecting every single amendment proposed by the opposition, one of the casualties was the Fair Wages and Hours of Labour Act. This law mandated that construction contractors with the government had to pay their workers the prevailing wage, and overtime after forty hours of work a week.

That hardly fitted in with the current corporate/government cheap labour strategy, which has been stated a few times already by Robyn Benson.

The adoption of this corporate agenda by politicians can be seen here in Ontario also. Recently, we have seen a Progressive Conservative private member’s bill introduced that would allow construction giant EllisDon to be able to hire non-union workers. Just to give you a sense of the massiveness of this company and the extraordinary profits it makes, this past April the company’s stated revenues have soared by three-and-a-half times—to $3.1 billion a year.

For the PCs, it appears that the promise of generous donations might have something to do with the advancement of this Bill. EllisDon has been lobbying hard, and since it’s one of the biggest fundraising donors to the provincial governing Liberals, it’s no surprise that they fully endorse this Bill (not to mention some family connections).

A former Ontario Liberal Party president founded EllisDon. His spouse served in the Cabinet of David Peterson’s Liberal government, and their son, formerly chair of the Ontario Liberal Fund, just happens to be CEO and president of the company. According to PC MPP Randy Hillier, EllisDon gave the Ontario Liberal Party more than a quarter of a million dollars in the period 2004-2011.

The lack of integrity that we are witnessing in the Ontario legislature is sobering: it faithfully reflects the grim political reality we are facing across the country. Some of us might already know from bitter experience that neither Liberals nor Conservatives have our best interests at heart—but their collaboration has seldom been as obvious as this. Two parties, but one sad message. Can you see the difference? I can’t.


Cheap labour isn’t merely a conscious strategy—it’s a symptom of an economic system that puts profits before people. In the expanding low-wage service sector, more and more workers are facing a lifetime in dead-end jobs. The number of Canadians making minimum wage or less keeps growing—it’s up to one million workers by now. Over two million Canadians work for less than $10/hour. Three-quarters of all new jobs pay less than the average wage, and service jobs are leading the way.

A dismal picture. And some people like that just fine.

The American retail giant Target has bulldozed its way into Canada, replacing the chain of Zellers stores that we grew up with. It took over 189 of Zellers’ 273 stores from the Hudson’s Bay Company—and 25,000 workers lost their jobs as a result of the deal.

Target promised, after some pressure, to interview ex-employees for new jobs. But that turned out to be a sick farce—only 1% of former Zellers workers were offered a job with Target. The rest were simply thrown on the scrapheap.

Successor rights? Depends on where you live. In BC, Target told the Labour Relations Board that it hadn’t bought Zellers, exactly—just the real estate. So there was no “successor” to Zellers, you see, and therefore no obligation to keep the employees. The Board swallowed this whole, although there were specific circumstances with respect to the store under dispute that may have made this ruling inevitable (decision here).

In Quebec, on the other hand, that argument didn’t wash, and former Zellers employees won a qualified victory. Target would have to show that it had just cause not to take on the ex-Zellers employees who applied for jobs. Anyone turned down by Target could bring a complaint to the Quebec Labour Standards Commission. Several have been received since: the principle of successor rights in that province has effectively been upheld. In the province of Ontario, matters are still up in the air, as Target plays the same game in Thunder Bay. The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) signed last-minute three-year contracts with Zellers this past January. Stay tuned.

Target, unbelievably, has managed to make Walmart, the bane of the labour movement, look positively enlightened. When the latter bought Woolco stores a few years ago, it hired on most of the ex-Woolco employees. But Target does things…differently.

To put it bluntly, Target is a miserably poor corporate citizen, and its extreme anti-union stance is well-known south of the border. Canadian workers may be less susceptible to this sort of thing, which may not even be legal here, but Target’s attitude to unions, and to workers in general, is fairly obvious, whether its new hires are forced to watch a stupid indoctrination video or not.

You’d think that all of this would be big news—that’s a heck of a lot of jobs lost in one fell swoop—but it hasn’t exactly been banner headlines in the mainstream media. Nothing, it seems, must interfere with the dominant narrative: that things are getting better, that the economy is wonderful, that Canada is a happy place. 25,000 service sector jobs lost are best ignored. Better to launch an attack on a new union instead—the corporate sponsors of the mainstream media prefer that sort of thing.

UFCW has gone to bat for the affected employees, unionized or not, and has a website well worth a look, called Target Fairness. It’s all part of the push-back as economically marginalized, low-wage employees, some with decades of work experience, are tossed aside to make way for fresh young ones.

But the trenches are being dug even now. Canada’s labour movement can’t just sit back and watch this happen.

Meanwhile, Target has hired a lobbying firm with close ties to the Conservative Party. It obviously knows who its friends are.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Dare to dream

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“It’s not just a question of being a big union. It’s big ideas…It’s about engaging people. It’s about engaging our members…but it’s also about outreach to the community.” ~UNIFOR President Jerry Dias


I was fortunate enough to spend part of the Labour Day weekend at the UNIFOR founding Convention, watching history being made. Two major industrial unions, the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union (CEP), formally merged into one 300,000-member strong union. It was an inspiring event, and I was energized by the atmosphere in the hall as convention delegates spoke of the hope and strength that their new union would bring to workers across Canada. Afterwards, they headed away to a great public concert to celebrate what they had just achieved. And the following day they joined a spectacular Labour Day parade to top it off.

The nervous naysayers from the corporate media were quickly heard from, which should be worn as a badge of honour. Chris Selley’s sneering commentary in the National Post is just one example.

The low-wage service sector—a key target of UNIFOR—has been expanding for decades, and is now one in which three out of four Canadians are employed. It remains largely non-union, although beachheads are being established, and, certainly in the US, unrest is growing. But at present, the sector overall, particularly food and retail, is a swamp of cheap labour. Selley says it is “bloody silly” to point out that unions have never been more necessary or important, but the low-paid workers in this area might beg to differ. I say, what a bloody silly comment.

Then let’s look at real hourly wages over the past few years. Here’s a relevant if gender-based figure: “From 1981 to 2011, average hourly wages increased by 17% among men aged 45 to 54, but increased by only 1% among men aged 25 to 34.” Given that teenagers in the food and retail areas are now being displaced by older workers in that age range, the 1% increase in thirty years sure seems stagnant to me. Indeed, so does the 17% increase, given that the rise in the GDP per capita (the total amount of wealth in the country divided by the population) during nearly the same period (1981-2011) was 46.3%. The average Joe and Jane aren’t getting anywhere near their fair share of that growth (see p. vi in the link).

Median income has risen in Canada, but not so’s you’d really notice. As pointed out in a Conference Board of Canada paper, the increase amounts to a total of 5.5% in 33 years—“going nowhere” about covers it. That’s over more than a generation and a half, by the way.

As for inequality, a more recent Conference Board study states bluntly:

Income inequality in Canada has increased over the past 20 years. [1990-2010]

Since 1990, the richest group of Canadians has increased its share of total national income, while the poorest and middle-income groups has lost share.

So, along comes UNIFOR, with an organizing outlook, a fightback attitude—and nearly a third of a million members. It will be a force to be reckoned with, joining sister unions who have been organizing in the service sector, like SEIU and UFCW. And its promised outreach to the community will certainly help to build more bridges between labour and the general public. “UNIFOR,” said outgoing CAW President Ken Lewenza, “is not just a union—it is a social movement!”

That’s promising stuff, and this brand-new union will be a welcome ally in the wider social movement that many of us have been busy building across the country. Dias has his work cut out for him, and he’s eager to get to it. He’s too long in the tooth to pay any attention to his corporate media critics, or take their helpful advice, and he says he’s “pumped” for the huge tasks ahead. “Companies are doing much better now and there are no justifiable reasons why wages and benefits should remain stagnant. We’ve been playing defence too long, it’s time to go on offence,” he says.

He’s got that right: it’s high time for us all to move forward, and by “us” I mean Canadian working people, union and (as yet) non-union. Solidarity, Brother: it’ll be a pleasure working with you. The next few years are going to be one heck of a ride.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Of forced votes and decisive wins

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The Harper government’s forced FB vote has been unceremoniously quashed by the Federal Court.

The judgement, not yet online, outlines clear evidence of a “lack of procedural fairness” on the part of the Minister, James Moore, who ordered the vote. The PSAC was given no warning that such a decision was imminent, and had no opportunity to present counter-arguments.

The government’s case was like something out of The Twilight Zone. They argued, presumably with a straight face, that the PSAC had no interest in the vote, because the decision affected only the employees concerned. They claimed that the PSAC had no right to be given notice of the pending decision, but had received notice anyway (simply untrue, as the Court found). And even if there wasn’t procedural fairness, they went on, there was no need to hear from the PSAC because the decision to force the vote would have been made anyway!

One wonders what would happen if the latter kind of thinking invaded the realm of criminal law. “The defendant is obviously guilty. No need to hear from his counsel. Ten years.”

Here’s a little more surrealism, this time about the alleged concern over illegal job action by border security officers. From the judgement: “The respondent argues…that it is often very difficult for an employer to establish that employees have acted in combination or concert when they undertake more subtle forms of job action.” Job action so subtle that no one can show that it has even taken place? Um, OK. Sounds really effective.

In any case, the Court began by reviewing the long history of negotiations for the FB group. The last collective agreement ended in June 2011, but we had served notice to bargain in February of that year, hoping, perhaps naively, to hurry the process along. Bargaining went on, in fact, until April 2012. The employer simply refused to address the critical issues raised by our duly-elected negotiating committee.

On April 19, 2012, we asked for a Public Interest Commission to be set up to re-start the stalled negotiations, and one was established by July 25. The PIC, once it is in place, normally gets thirty days to hold hearings and write a report, but both sides agreed to an extension of time. Final submissions were made by both sides in December 2012.

While the PIC deliberated, Treasury Board played a waiting game. We finally got a meeting in early May, during which time very minor improvements were offered, but the crucial issue of parity with other federal law enforcement agency workers was not addressed by the employer. It is important to underline the fact that the FB bargaining team was given a mandate by the membership (through a national bargaining conference, attended by over 100 FB elected delegates) to achieve parity, but the employer continued to insist that they agree to inferior terms and conditions of employment. So the team decided to wait for the PIC report as a basis for concluding a settlement.

This is where things began to go seriously sideways. On May 21, 2013, Treasury Board President Tony Clement wrote to Minister James Moore to ask for a forced vote. The PSAC was not copied on this letter, and we were not in fact informed that any such initiative was taking place. All Treasury Board had done was to tell us earlier that it was “considering” such a move. (On May 7, when this came to my attention, I immediately wrote to the Minister asking to be heard if such a move was actually in the works. I received no reply.)

Clement lamented the nearly one year that had elapsed since the PIC had been requested, but, as the Court noted, he failed to mention that both sides had agreed to an extension. He claimed to be worried about job action even though a potential strike was a long way off, said the PIC report wouldn’t be any use anyway, and that in any event the PSAC was asking for too much.

My May 7 letter was sent directly to the Minister’s office. From there, it was forwarded to his departmental office. But, allegedly, he never saw it until well after his decision had been made. A sceptical Court observed: “[N]o explanation has been provided as to why the letter was not placed before the Minister nor as to why it took several weeks for the Minister’s parliamentary office to forward the letter to the department (where it presumably would have been processed quickly under the service standards applicable in the department).”

Careful language indeed, but I think we can all see her raised eyebrows.

On June 5, the long-awaited PIC report was issued—two days before the Minister made his decision. The Court expressed real doubt that he been made aware of its contents. But the presiding judge, Mary Gleason, had little time for the government’s arguments, in any case. On the matter of PSAC not being an interested party in matter of the forced vote, she wrote:

“With respect, I disagree, and, indeed, believe it would be difficult to find a decision that might more deeply affect a trade union’s interests than the decision to order a vote among bargaining unit members”.

In addition, she noted that unions are indeed entitled to bargain for their members, and that it is, after all, the union’s signature that goes on the contract. For good measure, she pointed out that one case brought forward by the government actually supported our position.

As for the assertion that the PSAC had no standing to argue against the Minister’s decision, the Court said that if this were accepted, “one party to the collective agreement—the government—could shield its actions from being questioned, which would run counter to the entire scheme for collective bargaining in the public service”.

So far, the response from Treasury Board hasn’t exactly been encouraging. A spokesperson for Tony Clement reacted: “[The] government’s intent was to provide employees with an opportunity to have their say and vote on their contract. It is unfortunate that the union bosses would not give their own members that opportunity.”

This is grossly dismissive and unfair. While we waited for the court decision, the members at CBSA were actively engaged in a broad-based NO campaign with support right across the country. The union, in fact, fought to ensure that the democratic rights of those members were protected, both by supporting their duly elected bargaining team and by ensuring that the voting process itself, however premature, was fair and accessible.

It’s truly unfortunate that the real bosses have done everything but bargain seriously since February 2011. Treasury Board has been dragging its heels and throwing obstacles in the path of a negotiated settlement from the get-go. Now, having pointlessly expended $24,840 of the taxpayers’ money to hire a firm to conduct a forced vote, another $4000 in court costs to the PSAC, and substantial legal expenses on top of that, they’re right back where they were. Perhaps this court decision will wake them up at last, and they’ll finally agree that FB workers should have the same rights and benefits as already earned by other federal law enforcement agency workers. In any event, it’s off to the table again for the hard-working FB bargaining team—two and a half years after notice to bargain was first served.

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