Weekly labour news update, May 30, 2012

Conservatives freeze EI data
As the federal Conservatives introduces radical new changes to Employment Insurance, making it more difficult for recipients to collect EI, the government also plans on cutting the public off from important employment data. Human Resource Minister, Diane Finley, announced that her department has stopped sending Statistics Canada key and current information about how much federal money is flowing to each of the provinces for EI claimants. In an article by the Canadian Press, a spokesperson for Stats Can said that inconsistencies in the data provided by Human Resources first appeared over a year ago. NDP Opposition member, Peggy Nash said of the Conservatives that “Transparency has not been their strong suit”.

The number of people receiving regular Employment Insurance benefits was little changed in March of 2012, with over half a million Canadians received EI. The number of beneficiaries has been relatively stable since September 2011.

On a provincial basis, the number of EI recipients increased in Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan, Ontario and New Brunswick. In Alberta, the number of beneficiaries decreased by 2.9 percent.


US Steel
After the 11-month lockout at US Steel in Hamilton ended in October 2011, the company and the union are once again in conflict. Forty-six union workers were recently laid off and replaced by 50 contract workers, retirees of the steel mill, who are paid $40 and hour compared to the $33 an hour union rate. The firings and hirings come after a six-month agreement expired in which 250 workers were guaranteed work for 26 weeks. This agreement was part of the resolution to the 11-month lockout.

The union, Steelworkers local 1005, says the company has violated the new contract by approaching at least a hundred retirees to do contract work. Long suspected of attempting to shutdown the steel mill, Rolf Gerstenberger, president of the union, told the Hamilton Spectator, “You get a real feeling of doubt about whether they’re going to be around in the future…You have to start wondering if they have any long-term plans for this plant.”


Regina library workers strike
On Monday May 28, librarians, library assistants, clerks and other staff in Regina walked off the job to protest the library board’s refusal to resume contract talks. The walkout wasn’t technically a wildcat strike because the union was in a legal strike position as of May 27, but the action wasn’t authorized by the union. The walkout preceded a union rally at City Hall.

The 180 Regina library workers, represented by CUPE local 1594, have been without a contract since December 2009. They’ve also been without any wage increases since then. The workers delivered an 82 percent strike mandate on April 2.

The Regina library board has refused to bargain with the union since negotiations broke down in April. The board is demanding longer hours on Sundays with less pay, and reduced health and dental benefits for new part-time hires.


Windsor construction worker strike
Three hundred heavy equipment operators on construction sites in Windsor, Essex County and Kent County are on strike. The workers of Local 793 of the International Union of Operating Engineers, operate heavy construction equipment on road, sewer, water, bridge and excavation projects, including the Windsor-Essex Parkway project. In additon to the Parkway, the strike has shut down other construction sites across the region.

The job action started after negotiations with the Heavy Construction Association of Windsor broke down on May 24. The Association wants to extend weekly work hours before overtime pay from 50 to 55 hours. The union says this would violate the Employment Standards Act, and has filed charges of bad faith bargaining with the Ontario Labour Relations Board. The union is also asking the board to force the Association to sign its final offer memorandum of agreement in order to bring a resolution to the dispute.


Quebec Steelworkers escalate opposition to Rio Tinto
Protests against mining giant, Rio Tinto, continue in Alma, Quebec. On March 31, 8,000 people demonstrated in solidarity with the 780 aluminum workers locked out by the company. The march was made up of union members and activists from across a dozen countries where Rio Tinto has installations.

Company managers are demanding that the workers, represented by Steelworkers Local 9490, be replaced by subcontracted employees upon retirement. The replacement workers will be paid half the existing rates and will be without benefits or pensions. According to reports, the Alma facility is the most profitable aluminum smelter in Quebec.

Between May 1st and 3rd, 20 locked-out workers walked over 200 kilometres to the Quebec National Assembly in a protest dubbed the Energy March. The marchers presented a petition signed by over 12,000 supporters that denounces the fact that the anti-union and anti-worker company is being supported by government subsidies and interest-free loans. The government of Quebec has also signed a contract with the company that obligates it to purchase hydroelectric power that Rio Tinto produces with its private dams.

On April 16, union federations launched the “Off the Podium” campaign, which aims to have the International Olympic Committee to exclude Rio Tinto from the list of official suppliers for the 2012 London Olympics. Supporters held a rally in front of IOC headquarters in Luzerne, Switzerland on May 14. The campaign has received support from labour federations from across the globe.


Illinois Machinists Versus Caterpillar
Three weeks into a strike at its Joliet Illinois hydraulic parts factory, Caterpillar offered a new contract offer to the 780 workers represented by the Machinists union. Neither the union nor the company would speak about the new offer. The previous offer was rejected on April 29 leading to a strike on May 1. Caterpillar wanted workers to pay more for their health benefits while fixing their wages to market wages as determined by a local annual survey. Since most jobs in the region are non-union, this scheme would likely mean a wage cut for the workers. The workers rejected this offer by delivering a 94 percent strike mandate despite a $5000 signing bonus.

Caterpillar has continued to post record profits, including an incredible 83 percent increase between 2010 and 2011. Its heavy machinery sales have been boosted by a booming resource extraction sector led by the Alberta tar sands. Despite this, Caterpillar closed down its profitable and government-subsidized London, Ontario locomotive plant in February, moving operations to a low-wage factory in Muncie, Indiana. In Joliet, Caterpillar is demanding concessions from the workers who were already operating on a two-tier wage contract in which new workers were earning only half of senior workers.

The necessity of coordinated bargaining between different unions in order to combat concessions is made all the more important in this case. The Joliet workers would not be having such a difficult time had the United Autoworkers representing nearly 10,000 Caterpillar workers, not accepted the market-based wage proposal in 2004.


Saint Paul University faculty unionize with PSAC
On 15 May 2012, the Ontario Labour Relations Board issued a bargaining certificate for part-time professors at Saint Paul University, which is affiliated with the University of Ottawa. A strong majority of over 80 percent of part-time professors voted in favour of joining the Public Service Alliance of Canada in a vote held in April.

The number of part-time professors working at the university varies through the year, and was estimated at 45 at the end of the winter 2012 term.

The successful organizing drive at Saint Paul University marks the latest victory in PSAC’s broader campaign aimed at organizing the university sector across the country. Currently, approximately 30,000 of the PSAC’s 186,000 members work in universities as support staff, part-time professors, researchers and teaching assistants, amongst others.


H&M warehouse unionizes with UFCW
Workers at a Remco warehouse in Brampton, Ontario, which supplies H&M clothing stores in Canada supported certification with the United Food and Commercial Workers on May 23. This successful campaign comes after workers at H&M retail locations in Mississauga, Ontario and Joliette, Quebec joined the UFCW. The new Remco workers will join UFCW Local 175, the country’s largest local union, that already represents employees from H&M’s Mississauga Square One location.


Hewlett-Packard plans to cut 27,000 jobs
International technology giant, Hewlett-Packard, announced on May 23 that the company would layoff 27,000 employees by the end of 2014. This number represents 8 percent of HP’s total workforce. The move is part of a larger restructuring initiative that seeks generate savings of $3 billion to $3.5 billion through a process of streamlining the company’s supply chain, narrowing its product portfolio, and improving its business practices. HP says that the savings will be reinvested in the company’s research and development projects. Currently, 3 percent of sales goes into R&D.

Operating profits per employee at Hewlett-Packard come in at around $35,000, below that of Apple and IBM which currently stand at $49,000. Reports suggest that the company’s innovation and productivity have lagged behind competitors like Apple.

HP is offering an early retirement program for some of its employees, and workforce reduction plans will vary according to country. In the last decade, HP has shed over 75,000 workers.


Pension plans in Canada
Membership in registered pension plans in Canada surpassed 6 million in 2010, up almost 1 percent from 2009. Membership in public sector pension plans rose 1.8 percent while those in private sector pension plans declined by a half a percent. The biggest decline occurred in the manufacturing sector, where members fell by over 80,000 between 2009 and 2010. The public sector accounted for 52% of total membership in registered pension plans, up from 40% in the 1980s.

The total pension coverage rate in 2010 stands at approximately 39 percent.

Women accounted for three-quarters of the increase in pension plan membership. The participation of women in pension plans continues to outpace that of men.

Most employees who are members of pension plans are covered by defined benefit plans, but this number is on the decline. A defined benefit plan is to be paid according to a formula stipulated in the plan text. The employer’s contributions are not predetermined, but are a function of the cost of providing the promised pension.

In 2010, total employer and employee contributions to pension plans reached a record level of $54.2 billion. The market value of assets in these plans exceeded $1 trillion in 2010, up 10.6% from 2009. According to Statistics Canada, employer pension plans have recovered all losses experienced during the recent economic downturn.


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