Tag Archives: labour

Avoiding the shaft: no concessions for young workers

5 Jun

Screen shot 2013-06-05 at 5.47.29 PMA couple of years ago, I was talking to a friend of mine; a department chair at a program at Ryerson.

I was telling him that my partner started teaching at Ryerson, in another faculty, and was being paid about $5000 for the course. This was to cover four months of weekly three hour classes, six hours of prep time per class, office hours, a month of exam re-scheduling (and re-re-scheduling), assignment marking and invigilation. The class wasn’t too big, just 30 students, but we had calculated that he was getting ripped off. Ryerson, of course, was getting a deal.

He was a unionized member of CUPE 3904. His work undercut the necessity of hiring new professors. If a full semester of classes (5) cost Ryerson $25,000 to offer, and an awful job market was forcing PhDs to take these exploitative positions, Ryerson had no reason to actually hire a professor who would cost a great deal more to the university at at least $75,000.

Years and years of this kind of logic and these trade-offs, aided by the government’s preference to fund scandals over higher education, has created this large underclass of workers at Ontario’s colleges and universities. The Toronto Star reported that it was partly the fault of this sector that half of GTA workers are in precarious work in a study undertaken earlier this year.

My friend told me that this reality was, in part, the fault of the professors themselves. Rather than going on strike to reject these concessions, albeit in a different union and bargaining unit, professors would take what they could, bargain their own contracts and maybe offer support where they could. And really, can you blame them? They’re under extreme, albeit different stress too. “Unless we shut down this place, they’ll keep relying on sessionals” he told me. “And you know how likely it is that we’ll shut this place down.”

I thought about this story when I saw that the Toronto Star union had negotiated a way to keep the radio room, the place where many young journalists get their start, by agreeing to a 32 per cent pay cut. The radio room is where journalists listen to the police scanner and follow the cops to then report the news. Lots of stories about crime and other Toronto-based news originate from here.

I took to Twitter to express how I didn’t think this was at all a victory. I was quickly scorned by someone who saw this as good enough: the radio room has been saved, young people will have jobs and really, what other choice could there have been?

Sure, I don’t know what the negotiations were like. I do know that the radio room costs $250,000 to operate, according to the J-Source article linked above, and that if all that money goes to salaries (which is unlikely, as there must be some equipment and other costs rolled into this amount), the new contract will save TorStar Corporation $80,000. To put this into perspective, here’s how the Corporation did during the first quarter of 2013:

“Total Segmented Revenue was $332.4 million in the first quarter of 2013, down $18.4 million from $350.8 million in the first quarter of 2012.”
This amount would also, roughly, be recovered by the sale of four, 4-page insert ads, distributed on four Saturdays over the course of a year, according to the Toronto Star’s rate card.

The Star, while still making a profit, made less of a profit in the first quarter of 2013. But is this smaller profit enough to justify outsourcing the radio room? No. Just like how $80,000 isn’t going to boost the shares back up the few cents that they fell during that quarter.

Of course, it’s not just the Toronto Star or the higher education sector where this is happening. CAW’s 2012 agreement with the “big three” automakers for example also deepened wage segmentation between new and old workers.

The trend to level concessions on the backs of younger workers deeply troubles me. I’m currently writing a book that makes the argument that this tactic used by corporations, and unfortunately agreed to by many unions, is going to be what eventually destroys (or addressing it head on to save) the labour movement.

Younger workers have never had it so hard in post-war Canada. With record-high unemployment levels, record-high student debt, the outrageous proliferation of unpaid internships and the reliance on temporary foreign workers as a way to boost corporations’ bottom lines, young workers are in a rough spot. What’s worse, their interests are often posited against the interest of older workers in negotiations and the young ones often lose.

Older workers don’t have it that easy these days either but they’ll still, at least, be able to retire at 65. Who knows how long into the winters of our lives we’ll be forced to work?

The effects that such cuts have on young people are obvious. What should concern older union activists, though, is the effect it will have on the labour movement in general.

If your first interaction with your union sees your wages slashed, benefits cut and your job made precarious to be able to preserve the wages and benefits of an older worker, no commitment to solidarity, in principle, is enough to convince the masses that this is a structure that works.

Older union activists need to be worried about the message that these concessions send to young people: while it’s true that many young people are happy enough just to have a paying job, this sentiment is not enough to extend support to the role that unions play more generally. If the labour movement is going to survive, it needs to build its support broadly.

This is why unions must use the collective force of their workers to refuse concession contracts for young or new workers. Just like workers at CUPW, who refused to accept concession contracts for new workers and who were eventually locked out by the corporation, all unions should be prepared for the messy and difficult battles of saving all good jobs.

Corporations know that this divide-and-conquer tactic works and they’ll use it every single time that they can. If the only way to resist it is to refuse to be divided, the path toward our collective victories should be pretty obvious.

Building broad support for the labour movement won’t be possible if our backs are the sites on which negotiations are played.

Is your union going above and beyond to protect the rights of young or new workers? Share the story with me, I’d love to hear it!

Photo taken from libcom.org

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Unions and media: Will journalists save themselves?

22 Mar

Unions get a rough ride from corporate news sources.

From the loudest and most angry leading the charge (the Sun) down to the soft opponents at (barely) progressive papers, like the Toronto Star, the industry as a whole is not “pro-labour.”

Part of this phenomenon is driven by the growth of and emphasis on business reporting. Rather than balancing coverage with the perspective of workers, the news about “business” is dominated by stories about what the masters, bosses and owners are or aren’t doing.

This is despite the fact that many of the unions who protect journalists are strong, vocal advocates for their members. However, when your members’ job is to report and analyze the news, media unions and guilds do not have the same influence on broad, public debate as does the sum of their individual members.

Across all platforms in the mainstream press, there’s an obsession with reporting corporate profits, losses and detailing the lavish or subdued personnas of those who fill the ranks of CEOs. Journalism is supposed to challenge power but instead tends to justify and normalize power’s abuses. The powerful are mostly exalted and those who challenge power are mostly treated suspiciously and critically.

This coverage is so extreme to one side that it’s fantasy to imagine the Globe and Mail dedicating a daily section to news about working people, labour issues and unions.

Instead, we have the Lang and O’Leary Exchange, for example, promoting neoliberal policies that effectively call for the destruction of the CBC. As if a television show advocating for the wholesale elimination of the jobs of the people who create the show isn’t totally insane.

This is cognitive dissonance at its finest and it’s pervasive. Uncritical, PR company-spun, regurgitated talking points are the standard and it has resulted in a crisis of logic in the mainstream press.

For example, when Rogers only made $466 million during its third quarter last year, the Globe and Mail referred to this profit as having fallen, sounding as if the company were in trouble. This narrative was then posited in such a way that made its sound as if laying off hundreds of workers was justified.

While it might make sense for a CFO to refer to profits that are lower than the year before in negative terms, profit is profit. It damages the credibility of news when journalists parrot the talking points of corporate executives.

If collective bargaining were reported like this, pay increases that were lower than last years’ pay increases would be reported as a pay cut.

If public services were reported like this, tuition fee increases would be reported as compound losses for students’ personal assets rather than an investment in a phantom future.

Journalists report through this narrow and lop-sided lens, influencing how Canadians think about corporations, profits and CEOs, as if they aren’t under attack from the very same forces. The craziest part of this cognitive dissonance is that “the media” is peddling a narrative that makes possible the self-destruction of “the media.”

It’s a machine that is hell-bent on its own suicide. The snake has finally gotten a hold of its tail and, starved, it’s eating the hell out of it.

It’s not self-destruction for everyone in the sector. The corporate executives or board members who own and profit from media holdings will be fine. It’s self-destruction for the journalist, the camera operators, the office cleaners and everyone else who relies on the industry’s survival for a pay cheque. But, unlike at Bestbuy where laid-off workers get laid off without warning, media workers themselves are the ones creating the terrain that will lead to them delivering their own bad news. Their consistent anti-union, pro-business rhetoric is at the core of the demolition of their field.

While watching the steady decline, the layoffs, the outrage, then anger and frustration that comes from journalists when they discover that they’re not immune from these forces, that despite their attempts at remaining ‘unbiased,’ ‘clean’ or ‘pure’ that they’re still caught in neoliberalism’s cross-hairs, I find myself deeply confused.

The only way to protect journalists as workers is the only way to protect anyone who is a worker: develop strong unions who can fight against the destruction of the craft, broaden union membership and raise members’ consciousness about the role they play in perpetuating the system.

Unions are critical to saving the asses of many people who work in telecommunications and this includes journalists. Unions are key to the survival of the profession. Either unions will protect the existence of secure, well-enough paying jobs with benefits, or journalism will be outsourced to an automatic news generator powered by a team of people in a basement somewhere.

Unions, though, are nothing without the power of their individual members behind them. Without workers using their labour to create the conditions that improve their industry, the union’s role will be relegated to trying to save some of the jobs announced in a round of layoffs.

The hollow, uncritical babble that’s held up as journalism today threatens the functioning of Canada’s democracy, but it also threatens to undermine and diminish the very industry that peddles it out.

If the quality and endurance of journalism jobs depends on the union, then journalists also depend on the public to have a generally favourable opinion of unions and the roles they play.

And we find ourselves again watching the snake gnawing at its tail.

Using their work to save journalism may not be an easy concept for an industry full of people who both chase after the carrot: fame, honour and being on TV, and who fear the stick: unemployment, joblessness and blogging. I know this war wages inside the stomachs of most young journalists.

But something must be done. It’s time to stop this slow, mass suicide. It’s time for an intervention.

Why should the labour movement support Idle No More?

1 Feb
As seen on the side of a building in Québec City

As seen on the side of a building in Québec City

Idle No More has emerged to be the most important movement in Canada right now. For people who are new to Indigenous organizing or movements, it can sometimes feel like the issue is to too complex, too overwhelming and too large to understand. In partnership with the Canvass Campus Assembly Initiative, I’ve written this Q&A on Idle No More with an eye to a labour audience. This work should be seen as dynamic and suggested changes and additions are welcomed.

Please share this with your colleagues, engage in the work and find out how you can support Idle No More organizing in your community.

What is Idle No More?

Idle No More has emerged as a civil rights movement where Indigenous people, regardless of region or nationhood, have united to tell Stephen Harper “Enough is Enough.” It was sparked by opposition to the Federal budget bill, C-45. After video footage of dozens of chiefs surfaced being denied access to the House of Commons, people took to social media and called for protests across Canada under the banner of Idle No More. Since then, hundreds of protests, blockades, traditional round-dances, drumming, and other events have taken place in towns and cities across Canada.

Who is behind “Idle No More”?

Idle No More does not have official “leadership.” Instead, it was founded by four women from Saskatoon and has spread into a national movement. Canada is a large country and there exist hundreds of First Nations communities. Combined with Indigenous activists and allies within towns and cities, the movement has grown to be too large for a single leader. Spokespeople have emerged who articulate the demands that are being expressed by the grassroots.

But what about the chiefs? Aren’t they the leaders?

In some communities, the leadership has been quick to join the chorus of voices demanding change. Chief Theresa Spence, for example, helped to raise awareness of the conditions of many First Nations communities through her high-profile hunger strike. But in other communities, the leadership is slower to join the campaign.

In some ways, this is just like in the labour movement where it can sometimes be hard to gain the consensus among different unions, sectors and even within a local workplace. Imagine adding the presidents of the Canadian Labour Congress and the provincial labour federations into the mix; arriving at a consensus can be extremely difficult. And, just like in the labour movement, the side with power always tries to divide people to weaken the bargaining position of a movement. With Idle No More, there exists a broad consensus that something has to be done, but there are still large debates over how to fix what. It makes arriving at a consensus difficult, though certainly not impossible.

What’s contained within Bill C-45?

C-45, the federal omnibus budget bill, changes 44 federal laws. One of those laws, the Navigable Waters Act, has been changed to remove 99% of Canada’s lakes and rivers from previously existing environmental protections. Indigenous communities weren’t consulted on this change and expressed outrage as many bodies of water run through traditional territories. These changes will enable corporations to boost their profits by not having to abide by environmental protections.

Why should workers support Idle No More?

Many Indigenous people are union members. Supporting our brothers and sisters in the workplace is as important as supporting the struggles in which their communities are engaged.

The labour movement has proudly played supportive roles in civil rights movements and Idle No More should be no exception. Fighting racism within the workplace and in our communities must be at the core of our collective work.  Because of the relationship that Indigenous people have with “the Crown” (a.k.a. the federal government), all Canadian citizens have the responsibility to ensure that this relationship is functioning. When Stephen Harper breaks his promises or breaches his responsibility towards Indigenous people, Canadians must unite and demand that he honour the Treaties, or the agreements that formed the basis on which Canada was established.

The Treaties? What are they?

When Canada was being carved into provinces, many formal agreements were made between Indigenous communities and the Crown. Those agreements allowed for Canada to exist the way it does today. The Treaties outline what lands can be used for what purpose, the processes that exist to negotiate changes to these agreements and other policies. Many of these policies influenced the Indian Act, Canada’s only piece of race-based legislation.

What do you mean?

Part of the problems identified by activists in the Idle No More movement is that “Indians” as defined by the Indian Act are treated very differently from Canadians. They are subject to different rules for buying land or owning property, for example. The Act defines their nationality and excludes some Indigenous people because their parents and grandparents married non-Indigenous people. The Indian Act prevented First Nations people from voting until the 1960s, and also established the Residential School System.

There have been numerous abuses allowed by the Act, which was originally intended to eliminate Indian identity entirely. The federal government has used it and other policies to try to subjugate Indigenous people; this has led to familial breakdown, poverty, unemployment and other problems. Idle No More is the result of activism that has been building across Canada for decades and is helping to awaken a new generation of activists to the possibilities of resisting these negative realities and to continue building a united movement.

This seems overwhelming. Are there even any solutions?

Idle No More activists have been offering ideas and solutions throughout the campaign, but the issues are complex. The most pronounced one is that the relationship between the federal government and First Nations communities has to be rebuilt. Stephen Harper cannot simply ignore the Treaties and pass laws that will impact First Nations people.

For Canadians, Idle No More creates a space where everyone can demand that democracy start to work again. Canadians have benefitted greatly from the Treaties: industries, homes and communities would not exist had they not been signed. Through Idle No More, it’s time for Canadians to uphold their side of the bargain, support Indigenous brothers and sisters, and force our government to do the right thing.

Why can’t they just become like the rest of us Canadians?

Assimilation is a difficult subject. Because so many of us have been assimilated into Canada, the idea of protecting our own cultures or traditions can be hard to grasp. But while many immigrants made the choice to move to Canada (where their descendents still live), Indigenous communities had their ways of life forcibly taken from them. Many of Canada’s policies towards Indigenous people doesn’t resemble assimilation; they actually resemble genocide.

After centuries of these policies, Indigenous people are standing up to say that they reject the attempts to take away their languages, cultures and identities. They are fighting for the protection of their people and future generations. Assimilation is not an option because it would erase the rich histories, cultures, languages and traditions that have existed here for time immemorial.  

What’s the real story here?

Most of the policy decisions being made by the Harper government try to move, remove, or justify the transfer of people from their traditional territories. When Indigenous peoples were first forced onto reserves, it was often in remote, difficult places to farm, or far from urban centres. Many of these lands happen to be on top of diamond, gold, uranium or other precious metals and are now highly profitable and coveted by corporations. Many of these lands are in the way of oil and gas companies’ access to oil and gas. Many of these First Nations communities are living with the environmental disasters that have been left behind by profit-hungry companies.

The most recent attack on First Nations communities is the same attack that workers face when company management wants to cut health and safety regulations, or cut wages to boost profits. The only difference is that First Nations communities have to contend with health problems from environmental disasters caused by corporations all the time.

Standing in solidarity with Indigenous communities is important because these struggles are connected. A victory in a single plant or a single community is not enough. We need to stand up against corporate powers and their control over government decisions and bring democratic power back into communities.

Supporting Ontario teachers

23 Jan

Screen shot 2013-01-23 at 2.03.41 PMAll progressive struggles are connected, even when those connections can be hard to determine. Drawing these connections is not always easy. Neoliberalism has fractured our communities and conservatives (Conservatives and Liberals alike) have pitted one sector against the other to be able to control our organizing. Progressive people have to work to repair these damaged relationships and better connect the struggle with which they are most connected, to others happening in their communities, provinces or country.

In Ontario, Premier Dalton McGuinty has capitalized on division in his campaign against Ontario’s teachers. In an attempt to fight against his tactics, a group of activists and I created this Q&A on Bill 115 and teachers’ struggles. Feel free to share it, add to it in the comment section or offer your feedback.

While Bill 115 is about to be repealed, because much of its contents was forced upon teachers in a contract, its elements will remain.

What is Bill 115?
Bill 115 imposes a contract on all education workers (teachers, educational assistants, custodians, social workers, secretaries and lunchroom workers), some of who earn minimum wage. In early 2013, the McGuinty government intervened in the relationship between “management” (school boards) and the unions’ normal negotiation processes and forced a contract through legislation on all public elementary and secondary school workers.

The Liberals announced that they intend to repeal Bill 115 once implemented, proof that is unfair and likely unconstitutional because it restricts collective bargaining rights. If the legislation is eventually challenged for its constitutionality, there won’t be anything that can be done to change it, as it won’t exist any longer.

Really??
Yes. This is dirty politics at its worst. BIll 115 also doesn’t allow for appeals to the Labour Board or a third party arbitrator. No recourse exists to challenge or change the Act. This is why many teachers have resorted to withholding work that they would normally do as volunteers. Unfortunately, students who rely on extracurriculars, and the majority of teachers who love coaching or supervising clubs, suffer the most.

The government knew that this would be teachers’ only recourse and are banking on it damaging teachers’ image with the public to lose public support.

What are the biggest problems with the imposed contracts?
These imposed contracts undercut the role of the elected School Board trustees as management to determine what they think is best for their communities. It also removes teachers’ elected representatives from negotiating a fair contract for education workers. The Ontario government is circumventing two forms of democratic representation and forcing its will on both sides of the bargaining table.

In addition to the wage freeze, Bill 115 changes how sick days can be accrued. Teachers get no vacation pay. Instead, they are paid for 10 months of work, pro-rated over 12 months. Previously, many teachers could bank unused sick days and have them paid out much like workers’ vacation days or time in lieu. The new “use ‘em or lose ‘em” policy means sick days will now cost double what it used to to pay them out (when factoring in the cost of sick day usage and paying for supply teachers).

But teachers have it pretty easy. I do tough physical labour all day. They play with kids.
As with all workers, teachers are dedicated; they know it is a privilege to work with, advise and mentor your kids. On an assembly line, defective parts are thrown out–but teachers cannot just discard the kids that need extra help.

The impact teachers have on the lives and outcomes of our children is profound. If our government treats teachers like this, you can bet that they will treat other workers just as poorly.

I’m confused; didn’t Dalton McGuinty resign?
Yes, but even though he’s stopped all business of the Ontario Legislature since early October, he decided to stay Premier until the Liberal Party’s leadership race in late January. Every decision that he has made since he prorogued parliament has been done without the democratic force of our government behind it.

It sounds like he’s trying to use the teachers as a distraction.
Probably. Remember that he resigned and prorogued government amid allegations that his party wasted hundreds of millions of dollars in the temporary closure of a gas plant in Mississauga. His minister of energy, Chris Bentley, was facing a motion of censure that could have landed him in jail.

Will this affect me as a worker in another sector?
Yes. The teachers are being used as a test case. If the government is able to interfere in the collective bargaining process of a sector, even if the interference may be unconstitutional, they will use similar tactics against other workers. Bill 115 has allowed the McGuinty government to circumvent the only democratic process that workers have, and force them to take concession contracts.

Do you really think the government would come after private sector workers in the same way?
As industries change and as foreign ownership continues to play a role in labour politics, the Ontario government is going to look for what pieces of anti-union legislation to keep wages low and boost corporate profits. The closure of the Electro-Motive plant in London is proof that our governments are uninterested in protecting workers. Just as we will fight U.S.-style Right to Work legislation when it appears in Canada, we have to fight Ontario anti-union legislation in other sectors.

The Liberals only react when they think it will cost them votes or support. This means that all workers have to oppose Bill 115 and support education workers, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because when we’re targeted by these policies, we’ll need support.

CEP-CAW New Union Project

15 Oct

From Sunday until Wednesday, I’m at the Communications, Energy, Paperworkers convention in Québec City.

I’ve been tweeting a lot from the convention for Rabble. Normally, my blogs here are posted first, then at Rabble. But, for convention news, I’m doing this in reverse.

So, for the limited number of people who read my blog check here before they check Rabble, here the posts the first two days of the convention:

Day 1

Day 2

The focus of the convention has been on a resolution to merge with the Canadian Auto Workers. The vote happened this morning, and is historic. Both of my articles ask what this decision will mean for CEP and CAW, and the broader labour and progressive movements in general.