Weekly labour news update, May 23 2012

Halifax cabbies | CP Rail | CAW 444 elections | Saint John media workers | Global youth unemployment | Toronto’s working poor | Flaherty’s EI reforms | Corporate criminal negligence | Charest’s Bill 78

Halifax cabbies consider unionizing
Taxi drivers in Halifax, Nova Scotia are considering unionizing. Gary Jollymore, an independent cab driver in the city, is leading the drive. He and six other taxi drivers approached the Canadian Auto Workers to help with the campaign. Approximately 1,200 cabbies work in the municipality.

CAW Atlantic organizer, Rick Rose, said that there is likely enough support to being a union campaign. Rose said that drivers would be organized by company rather than as a whole group. The owner of Casino Taxi, Brian Herman, questioned the move stated that he does not see the need for a union and was unsure of the potential consequences.

Rose said that in his conversation with drivers, one of the mostly commonly cited complaints is fairness. Companies, he says, feel as though they can arbitrarily discipline workers without any recourse.

While labour boards in Ontario, British Columbia, and Manitoba have ruled that the drivers are considered “independent contractors” but still qualified to join a union, it is uncertain what the legal framework in Nova Scotia will permit for these Halifax workers.


CP Rail workers strike vote to strike, federal Labour Minister threatens back-to-work legislation
4800 Canadian Pacific Rail engineers, conductors and rail traffic controllers across Canada went on strike in the early hours of Wednesday May 23. The union delivered a 72 hour strike notice on May 19 after a 95 percent strike vote on April 27. The main issues include work rules, fatigue management and CP’s attempt to cut pensions by 40 percent

CP Freight traffic across Canada has been shut down but commuter trains in Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal will run on schedule.

By mid-day Wednesday the federal Tories were already threatening back-to-work legislation with Minister of Labour Lisa Raitt providing the same spurious justifications it did with back-to-work legislation against Air Canada ground crew and pilots in March.

The legislation is being prepared even though Raitt met with the union the day before the strike and said nothing about such legislation. Despite her rhetorical acrobatics claiming non-intervention, her announcement will give CP Rail the opportunity to not negotiate with the union, thus predictably leading to back-to-work legislation.

George Smith, a former vice-president with CP and Air Canada, hoped that Ms. Raitt would not intervene. Now a faculty member at Queen’s University, Smith said that it should be clear from experience for Ms. Raitt that “you can’t legislate peace”, and that the collective bargaining process must be allowed to work.


Leadership change in Windsor unions
Two major Windsor union locals have seen successful challenges to the established leadership. Windsor’s municipal inside workers union, CUPE 543, saw its president Jean Fox ousted by challenger Mark Vander Voort. Fox was president of the local during the lengthy 15-week Windsor municipal strike in the spring of 2009.

A more high profile defeat of establishment candidates happened in CAW local 444 representing Windsor’s Chrysler assembly plant workers and Casino workers. The local, one of the most powerful in the CAW, saw a bitter conflict between candidates allegedly handpicked by the CAW executive and independents. Three establishment candidates were defeated with three more elected by narrow margins. The independent candidates in 444 ran on promises of no backroom deals, no questionable appointments to union positions, and appeals to a healthier internal union democracy.

In many respects, the 444 election represents a rebuke of Ken Lewenza’s presidency of the CAW. Lewenza himself was former president of 444. CAW had toured Windsor and other auto-related Ontario cities promoting their new auto policy released in April. The document and the tour called for more government intervention to prop up the auto industry while downplaying the prospects for autoworkers in the upcoming round of bargaining with the Big Three automakers this fall.


Saint John media workers deliver unanimous strike vote
Canadian Media Guild members at three Saint John radio stations have delivered a unanimous strike vote in their attempts to bargain a first contract after unionizing a year ago. The union members, ranging from production and administrative staff to on-air hosts, work at CFBC, K-100 and Big John FM, stations all owned by MBS, a media conglomerate with 24 stations in all three Maritime provinces. According to the union, MBS has offered a pay scale starting at $22,000 and reaching a maximum of 28 and a half thousand dollars by 2015. The proposed scale would be a significant wage cut for existing positions.

Prior to the strike vote, the union had been putting pressure on MBS through a work-to-rule campaign, including not volunteering for community events commonly associated with commercial radio promotions and publicity. On May 10, the union arrived at bargaining meeting to deliver a comprehensive offer but MBS did not show up. The workers are in a legal strike position on June 1.


Youth unemployment at record levels
Since 2007, the number of young people without work has grown by four million. Millions more “disconnected youth” have given up on the job search altogether. According to the International Labour Organization, the global youth jobless rate this year remains stuck at “crisis peak” levels and likely won’t decline until at least 2016.

In 2012, the report predicts that almost 75 million young people will be jobless. The unemployment rate for those aged 15 to 24 stands at 12.7 percent, unchanged since the peak of the economic crisis in 2009. Canada’s unemployment rate for young people is 13.9 percent with Newfoundland experiencing the highest rate at 20.2 percent. Alberta’s youth unemployment rate, at 8.8 percent, is the lowest in the country.


The number of “working poor” in Toronto on the rise
The number of working poor in the Toronto Region increased by 42 percent between 2000 and 2005, according to a report published by the Metcalf Foundation in February of 2012. This group accounts for more than 70,000 adults in the city of Toronto and more than 113,000 in the region. These workers live in a region with the highest cost of living in Canada. The greatest increase occurred in Mississauga, Richmond Hill, Markham, Uxbridge, and King. In Toronto, most increases in working poverty occurred east of Yonge Street.

A vast majority of the working poor are immigrants are located mainly in the sales and service occupations. Just over half the working poor have some higher education.

Even though minimum wages grew by 8.9% between 1995 and 2005, inflation increased by over 22 percent during the same period.

As Sandy Houston, Metcalf Foundation President and CEO, states in the report, “Employment is commonly understood to be the best antidote to poverty. Yet the increasing numbers of people working and poor in the Toronto Region paints a troubling picture.”

A full copy of the 54 page report can be found at http://metcalffoundation.com.


Princeton grad, former lawyer and finance minister says any job is a good job
Federal Finance Minister, Jim Flaherty, has taken aim at unemployed Canadians by telling Employment Insurance recipients that they risk having their EI benefits cut if they refuse to any available job. Flaherty, who earns about $233,000 a year, told reporters “There is no bad job, the only bad job is not having a job… You do what you have to do to make a living”.

Even though 750,000 jobs have been created since the recession, the unemployment rate sits at 7.3 percent – a full point higher than before the 2008-09 economic downturn. There are more unemployed Canadians today than four years ago, and more who have simply given up and left the labour force. Making matters worse is that the consumer prices rose 2.0% in the past 12 months.

Citing existing labour shortages in Saskatchewan and Alberta, Flaherty insisted that the future of Canada’s labour market will be one of shortages, not unemployment. The Finance Minister said “That means we are going to have to encourage more persons with disabilities to work, more seniors to work, more aboriginal people to work, including young people. We need to get rid of disincentives in the employment insurance system to people joining the workforce.”

What the Minister failed to say is that the Employment Insurance system is not a benefit provided by the government, but a social insurance system paid for by workers and employers.


Investigating criminal negligence in the workplace
The Canadian Labour Congress has recently released a guide for investigating corporate criminal negligence in the workplace, marking the 20th anniversary of the Westray coal mine disaster.

As the CLC guides states, “Corporate criminal negligence results from corporations wantonly and recklessly ignoring risks of bodily harm to their workers. It also applies to cases when companies do not plan sufficiently and do not put in place means to protect their customers or neighbours.”

In 2004, federal legislation was passed that holds employers criminally liable if they willfully fail to protect the lives and safety of their workers. But as CLC President, Ken Georgetti, argues, the provinces and territories rarely enforce the law. The 20 page booklet, “Death and Injury at Work: A Criminal Code Offense”, provides practical information for workers, unions, and police about how to investigate and enforce an employers’ criminal negligence.

According to the guide police officers are obligated to approach corporate crime as they would any other crime.

An investigation and full public inquiry of the Westray tragedy brought to light the extent of total disregard that management had for the safety of their workers. Despite these findings, no senior official, government representative, politician, owner or corporation was ever held criminally responsible for the deaths of the 26 workers.

A copy of the report can be found at www.canadianlabour.ca.

Charest’s Bill 78 and popular opposition to the draconian legislation
Our last story of the day is the Quebec student strike and the May 22 rally in Montreal of upwards of 400,000 people. On Friday May 18, Quebec’s Liberal government under Jean Charest passed Bill 78 through the National Assembly. The law places severe limits on freedom of assembly and speech according to a wide range of groups and individuals, from student organizations and trade unions, to constitutional and legal scholars. Montreal City Council also passed a law banning the masking of faces during protests. Bill 78 is widely understood to be the most severe repeal of civil liberties in Canada since the invocation of martial law through the War Measures Act during the October Crisis of 1970. The law expires on July 1 2013.

The bill makes it illegal to form a picket or protest within 50 metres of an educational institution. It declares demonstrations of over 50 people illegal. For a demonstration to be legal, the march route and its start and end times must be approved by the police at least eight hours before the demonstration commences. The police are able to reject the application or alter its march route. Violations of these provisions incur heavy fines, including $1,000 to $3,000 per individuals, $7,000 to $35,000 for student leaders, and $25,000 to $125,000 for student organizations or labour unions. These fines are daily and increase for repeat offences. Last but not least, education workers are prohibited from disrupting classes through protest or strike action.

Since its passage on May 18, the law has been violated repeatedly by demonstrators, leading to a number of clashes with police. While the mainstream media has concentrated on framing violence as a function of the student protest, a number of youtube videos have surfaced in recent days showing police pepper spraying demonstrators and bystanders with no provocation. One video that received wide media coverage shows riot police pepper spraying patrons at a Montreal restaurant patio. Another shows a police cruiser ramming into a protester before speeding off.

The passage of the law has ramped up opposition to the Charest government. On the 100th day of the student strike, a massive rally of a quarter million people marched through Montreal on May 22. Some reports put the figure at 400,000. This was unquestionably the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history. The rally went far beyond the ranks of the student movement, pulling in large sections of Quebec society. The student union CLASSE has called for the law to be openly defied while Amir Khadir, the sole MNA of the left-wing party Quebec solidaire, has also called for Quebeckers to ponder the necessity of civil disobedience. Events have also led Montreal’s transit workers union, CUPE local 1983, to refuse driving buses used by the police to transport arrested protesters.

While too early to tell the long-term consequences of Bill 78 and the future of the student movement, it is certainly the case that the student strike has morphed into a wider anti-government movement. It may spell disaster for Charest as an election looms in the fall. This is likely why new minister of education Michelle Courchesne has stated on May 22 that she was willing to negotiate with students again. It appears, however, she hasn’t learned her lesson from her predecessor Line Beauchamp who resigned her cabinet post and stepped down from politics altogether on May 14. In reference to the student organization CLASSE, Courchesne she stated “An association that calls for civil disobedience, the non-respect for the law, I have the impression they will not return to the table…Will they respect the decisions of the courts? Will they respect the law?…I presuppose that they do not want to come back to the table.”

It appears that Charest’s increasingly authoritarian government is still too arrogant to recognize how often it has been humbled these past 101 days of the Quebec student strike.


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