Weekly news update, July 25, 2012

Newfoundland wildcat strike | Chicago teachers | Ontario teachers | B.C. teachers | Big Three Automakers and the CAW | Striking Spanish coal miners | Payroll earnings in Canada, April 2012 | Scaffolding deaths & charges| Construction deaths

Newfoundland wildcat

On July 13, over a thousand workers went on a five-day illegal strike at a Vale processing plant under construction on the western end of Newfoundland’s Avalon peninsula. The strike was initiated by crane operators over wages, living allowances and travel pay. Vale responded with an application to prosecute striking workers, an application that was granted by the province’s Supreme Court.

The wildcat was not only directed against the company, but also the unions representing the roughly two thousand workers on the Vale megaproject. Sixteen different unions are represented on the site, and they operate together under the Resource Development Trades Council.

President of the council, Gus Doyle, was adamant about ending the wildcat. Quoted by the CBC, Doyle said: “We have a collective agreement in place — they want the collective agreement to be opened up and changed, and that’s not in the cards”

Doyle added: “I’ll just use my own kids as an example,” he said. “I mean, a child will ask you something and they have an answer in mind, and if you don’t give it to them, then you’re wrong, and that’s the case here today.”

Doyle’s comments, made over the weekend, were rebuffed on Monday July 17 when a thousand workers turned up to picket the worksite. Grievances from crane operators, carpenters and other workers were finally taken up by the union and the wildcat ended on July 18.

Chicago teachers

On June 11, Chicago’s teachers voted an incredible 90 percent in favour of strike action. Less than 2 percent voted against a strike.

The possibility of a strike in Chicago will pit teachers in a Democratic Party stronghold against its mayor, Rahm Emanuel, who served as President Obama’s White House Chief of Staff at the outset of his presidency in 2009. The final straw for teachers was an attempt by Emanuel’s administration to raise workloads by 20 percent while halving a promised 4 percent wage increase.

These immediate concerns are also bound up in Emanuel’s attempt to open up 60 new Charter schools, otherwise known as private schools, through the city over the coming five years. The massive expansion of charter schools across the United States in the last decade has seen not only students bearing the brunt of privatization through the discriminatory selection of students for the sake of higher average grade scores, but also the destruction of public school teachers unions.

The looming struggle in Chicago comes on the heels of a reform slate victory in the Chicago Teachers Union in June of 2010 when the Caucus of Rank and File Educators, known as CORE, won the CTU’s elections on the promise of fighting both concessions and charters schools. Since then, the CTU has galvanized students, parents, and other social movements such as Occupy behind its efforts to stop the privatization of public education.

BC Teachers

Meanwhile, in other teachers news, teachers in British Columbia voted to accept the government’s contract on June 30. Only half the 40,000 members voted on the contract, with 75 percent in support. While mainstream commentators have described this as a victory for the BC Liberals, the BC Teachers Federation only reluctantly brought the tentative agreement to its members. Some teachers, including the Greater Victoria Teachers Association, recommended voting against the deal. One major outcome of the deal is that BC teachers once again are unable to negotiate smaller class sizes.

For the second time in a decade, the BCTF is taking the BC Liberal government to court over its attacks on teachers, specifically the denial by the government of teachers being able to negotiate class sizes. At present, Bill 22, a wide-ranging piece of back-to-work legislation passed in March following a three-day teachers strike, is being challenged. However, the last time the BCTF challenged the provincial government in court over restrictions to bargaining class sizes was after a 2003 dispute, and it took until April 2011 for the court to deliver a verdict.



Ontario teachers

On July 5, a major rift emerged amongst Ontario’s teachers unions as the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association reached a two-year agreement with McGuinty’s provincial Liberal government. The agreement includes McGuinty’s demand for a wage-freeze and other fiscal restraints such as unpaid work days.

Fred Hahn, president of CUPE-Ontario, has attacked the deal, saying “Any attempt to force this agreement on other workers in this sector would be a mistake that the government should not make”. Hahn added that “The Liberals cannot say that they are protecting our education system when they are removing millions of dollars from it”.

Ken Coran, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation, said he was “upset and disheartened” and his union is challenging the Ontario’s government’s bargaining practices through the Labour Relations Board.

Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario, says the Liberal austerity strategy with regards to education is being only partially disclosed to the public and that QUOTE ““I have no doubt that OECTA members will discover that this deal does not mitigate the impact of the government’s original parameters. This deal is not a blueprint and it is certainly not a roadmap for anyone to follow.”

The disarray among Ontario’s teachers unions does not bode well for the necessity of stopping the McGuinty governments austerity measures, let alone providing an alternative set of policies for public education in the province. However, McGuinty’s electoral support from the teachers unions that helped him win majorities in 2003 and 2007 will likely crumble. In all this, there appears no evidence of an organized dissenting section of Ontario’s teachers, as witnessed with the Chicago Teachers Union or the Greater Victoria Teachers Association. The options before Ontario teachers appear to be either acceptance of concessions as in OECTA’s case, or accepting the anti-austerity line by the other teachers unions, but a line that is disconnected from a strategy of reaching out to parents, students and wider public.



Big Three automakers and the CAW

The Canadian Autoworkers will be starting negotiations with Chrysler and GM on August 14 and Ford on August 15. The negotiations will cover 24,000 workers at the Big Three, almost all of them located in Ontario. Full-fledged bargaining won’t begin until later in August following a CAW constitutuional and bargaining convention in Toronto from August 20 to 24.

The Big Three have put the union on notice that they intend to secure cuts in labour costs to achieve parity with Big Three contracts in the United States under the American United Autoworkers. The Big Three claim that CAW labour costs are $79 an hour compared to $64 int he United States. However, the CAW says that its costs are actually $63 an hour.

CAW is under pressure to trade annual wage increases for lump-sum payments. Tensions will likely be the highest with Chrysler which is not doing as well as Ford or GM. In the 2008 round of bargaining, Chrysler was the last to settle with the CAW and the contract was the least favourable for workers. However, because it has the highest percentage of operations in Canada of the Big Three – 25 percent – Chrysler finds itself in a weaker bargaining position. CAW president Ken Lewenza says the union is seeking job security and pledges from the Big Three for further investment in Canadian auto manufacturing.

Stay tuned to future episodes of Rank and File Radio for detailed coverage of these negotiations and the state of the Canadian Autoworkers.



Striking Spanish coal miners

Ten thousand Spanish coal miners have been on strike for nearly two months. In late May, a number of miners began underground sit-ins. Street battles in the Asturias coal mining region have also erupted as protests by miners and their supporters have been attacked with tear-gas, rubber bullets and truncheons. Injuries in these battles have been widespread and fatalities among protesters have been reported.

The strike, however, has reinvigorated the opposition to austerity. This was exemplified by a three-week long march to Madrid by 80 coal miners. When it arrived in the city in mid-July, it was greeted by a crowd of 150,000.

The miners strike is in response to the government’s attempt to impose a 63 percent cut to coal subsidies which would see the loss of thousands of jobs, especially in the country’s many small single-industry coal mining towns. The cuts to coal subsidies are part of a larger program of austerity measures being foisted on the Spanish people amidst the Eurozone crisis plaguing numerous countries, including Ireland, Portugal, Italy and particularly Greece. The story in Spain is not unfamiliar to those of us in Canada. The cuts to the coal subsidies – and a series of other major cuts to jobs and public services – comes on the heels of massive bailouts in the billions for Spanish banks.



Payroll earnings, April 2012

In April, average weekly earnings were up 1 percent from the month before, and up 3 percent from a year earlier. The wholesale trade and construction sectors experienced the largest increases. In retail trade, which is the lowest paid sector on average, weekly earnings rose by over 4 percent. With the exception of Alberta, Canadian provinces with the highest union density rates, namely Newfoundland and Labrador, Saskatchewan, and Quebec, experienced the highest year-over-year growth in average weekly earnings. See Statistics Canada for further details.

Scaffolding deaths & charges

On Friday July 13th Metron Construction was found criminally negligent for the deaths of four workers in a 2009 scaffolding accident in Toronto. The company, as well as owner and director Joel Swartz were fined a total of $342,500 under the OHSA.

On Christmas eve of 2009, 5 workers fell 14 stories on a Metron Construction job on Kipling Ave. While repairing concrete balconies, the scaffolding the workers stood on broke. There were six men on the scaffolding at the time. Four did not have life-lines attached to them, 1 was not secured properly, and 1 was secured with a lifeline.

Aleksey Blumberg, Vladimir Korostin, Alexander Bonorev, and Fayzullo Fazilov were killed, while Dilshod Marupov was seriously injured. The workers ranged from 25 to 40 years old, and were migrant workers from Latvia, Uzbekistan and Ukraine.

Owner Joel Swartz was fined $22,500 for each of the four deaths under OHSA, plus a surcharge, for a total of $112,500. The Crown attorney originally asked for a $1 million fine for the company. The OFL has called for the crown to appeal the ruling. OFL president Sid Ryan conveyed concern that there was no jail time given in this case, but rather just a cost of doing business for the company. This is consistent with the OFL campaign “Kill a worker, go to jail” which seeks harsher penalties for companies that violate the OHSA and cause work-related deaths.

Swing N’ Scaff, the company that supplied scaffold to Metron, still faces charges of violating OHSA. Also, one survivor has sued Metron, Swing N’ Scaff, apartment building owners and Ontario Ministry of Labour for $16 million.

Construction Death

On Thursday July 12 a truck driver died after being trapped under a cement pump truck at a residential construction site in Markham Ontario. The incident happened on 16th ave. near Macowan road. The worker has not been identified, and the Ontario Ministry of Labour is investigating.

80-90 workers are killed on the job every year in Canada, and there are 250,000 workplace injuries/year.

It is unfortunate that, the day before the decision regarding Metron Construction was made, there was another on-the-job death in Ontario. The concerns of the OFL and Sid Ryan should be front-and-centre for Canadian workers and the Ontario Ministry of Labour. Are fines enough? Peoples lives are at stake and if we do not see jail time, or significant repercussions, will companies (especially those that can find the dollars to pay for fines) be compelled to comply more stringently to OHSA regulations? Particularly important in the Metron case is that the victims were migrant workers whose conditions are far more precarious than other Canadian workers with lower pay, benefits and the constant threat of dismissal or deportation. We need stronger penalties for employers who do not comply with the OHSA, and stronger protection for migrant workers so they can have their safety needs met on the job.

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