Weekly news update, August 8, 2012

Ontario teachers dispute | Verizon workers set for strike | Queen’s University staff vote on agreement | Nissan organizing, UAW | VIA Rail protest, Halifax | NB lobster protest | Labour law reform “consultation”, SK | Edmonton nurses strike

Ontario teachers dispute
Only last week it seemed the Ontario teachers unions were on the back foot with Premier McGuinty’s attempts to impose a wage freeze on teachers backed by the threat of back-to-work legislation if the school year did not start on schedule in early September.

However, it appears that the deal struck between Ontario’s Liberal government and the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association, is losing support. The deal with OECTA was struck on July 5 and lauded by McGuinty and the mainstream press as a victory for the austerity agenda which is seeing cuts to services without increases in historically low corporate tax rates.

A number of rank-and-file OECTA members, as well as local leaderships, have publicly opposed the deal and criticized the complete lack of local input and democracy in the bargaining process. Even public school boards, which were told by the Ontario government to seek such a contract with its respective teachers unions, have opposed the framework.

Quoted in the Globe and Mail, Richard Brock, president of the Halton Catholic Elemetnary Teachers Association, called it “a road map to disaster,” adding that he was “disgusted and embarrassed by it.” Brock said the union leadership agreed to concessions with no input from local bargaining groups within the union. Brock says he plans to undermine and defeat the deal and is exploring ways in which to do so.

The deal with OECTA’s 45,000 members would freeze wages for two years, introduce three unpaid professional development days per year, limit sick days, and end the banking of sick days. The McGuinty government has ordered school boards to impose this deal on all other teacher unions, including those in the public school system. If this fails, McGuinty has made only one strategy known to the public: calling the Ontario legislature back early in order to pass back-to-work legislation against the teachers.


Verizon workers set for a strike
After 12 months of negotiations, 45,000 American communication and electrical workers employed by U.S. telecommunications giant, Verizon, are set to go on strike. This comes less than a year after the workers went on strike for two weeks in 2011. The workers are members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

Verizon is trying to squeeze billions of dollars of concessions from the workers through cuts to health care benefits and pensions, despite making over $20 billion in profits over the past five years. Sick day and disabilities benefits are also in jeopardy. Even more enraging for the telecommunication workers is that the top five executives have raked in more than $250 million in pay since 2006. Verizon is also attempting to remove restrictions on contracting out services from installation to sales, threatening the union’s very existence.

Verizon is engaged in discussions with federal regulators as the company tries to establish a service agreement with four separate cable companies. Union members have responded by calling on the Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Justice to reject the deal, which they argue would hurt the interests of workers and consumers in the United States.


Queen’s University staff vote on first agreement
On August 2nd and August 7th, Queen’s University staff represented by the United Steelworkers voted overwhelming in support of their first collective agreement. Of the 697 ballots cast, 626 – or over 90 percent – voted in favour of the agreement. The agreement includes salary gains and step increases, increases for tuition support and child care, clarity around sick leave, just cause rights, enhanced severance pay in case of layoff, improved job security, among other benefits.

It has been almost four years since the campaign to unionize staff members at Queen’s University in Kingston got off the ground. This vote represents an important achievement for the hard working employees that make university education possible.

For more information on the collective agreement visit www.qusw.ca.

Nissan organizing by UAW
After announcing a $60 million campaign to organize auto workers in the Southern United States in 2011, the United Autoworkers union has yet to unionize any workers in the region. In fact, it has been 11 years since the union has gone as far as a certification vote in the Southern auto manufacturing sector. In July, the UAW announced its first public organizing drive since 2001, this time at a Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi.

It appears that UAW President, Bob King, has given up on trying to implement the voluntary “Principles for Fair Union Elections”, which sought to have companies abstain from intimidation, threats, and promises of increased wages during organizing campaigns. None of the German-, Korean-, or Japanese-owned companies that operate 14 assembly plants in the U.S. accepted his offer.

Workers at the Canton Nissan plant have been subject to intimidation as well as mandatory, and blatantly anti-UAW, “roundtable meetings” organized by management. Nissan has also been telling its employees that the company has never laid-off workers in their U.S. plants. This is due to the fact that over a quarter of the company’s workforce is employed by temp agencies, which are ultimately responsible for hiring and dismissing workers under contract.

Mississippi is a low-wage, right-to-work state. In the current economic climate in the United States, workers are being told by politicians and management that they are fortunate to have jobs at all. Pay at the Nissan plant tops-out after five years, at just over $23 an hour.

Of note, the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario has used Southern right-to-work states, like Mississippi, as examples of a “manufacturing renaissance” for Ontario unions and workers to follow.


VIA Rail protest in Halifax
Via Rail president Marc Laliberté and other company executives were confronted with empty chairs at the Halifax Westin Hotel when a hundred Via Rail workers boycotted the meeting. The meeting was arranged between company executives and members of CAW local 4005 but boycotted because of the company’s decision in late June to cut rail service from Halifax to Montreal by half, from six to three trains a week. The cuts will result least 45 jobs lost in Halifax and Moncton and 200 across the country.


New Brunswick lobster protests
On August 2, two-hundred lobster fishermen began a blockade of three processing plants in Cap-Pele, New Brunswick to stop imported lobster from Maine. The lobsters from Maine were being sold at $2 a pound whereas New Brunswick fisherman say they can’t sell for under $3.75 a pound. The blockade shut down the processing plants.

Negotiations between the Maritime Fisherman’s Union and the government happened over the weekend and were able to get the processors to agree to $2.50/pound for canning, and $3/pound for market lobster. The workers oppose the deal and in a mass meeting of 300 on Sunday, the fisherman agreed to continue the protests until they got $4/pound. The right-wing and anti-union Canadian Taxpayer Federation has waded into the dispute calling on the New Brunswick to abandon compensation plans for lobster fishermen. The Federation was once headed up by Jason Kenney, now federal immigration minister helping oversee the radical changes to Employment Insurance which will have a dramatically negative effect on the seasonal fishery workers.

The blockades resumed on Monday and on Tuesday August 7, lobster fisherman also protested at the Maritime Fisherman’s Union offices in Shediac over the failure of the union to achieve better rates. A blockade also sprung up at a processing plant in PEI which quickly secured a new deal for fishermen.


Labour law reform “consultations” in Saskatchewan
With regards to ongoing provincial labour reform, July 31 marked the end of the three month “consultation” period established by the Government of Saskatchewan. According to Labour Minister, Don Morgan, the ministry has received more than 2,000 written submissions. Sources in the Opposition NDP suggest that many of these submissions are form letters organized by the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses and other business groups that support the ruling Saskatchewan Party. The government has promised to eventually make public all written submissions in accordance with freedom of information legislation.

Labour groups, Opposition politicians, and labour lawyers have rightly criticized the government’s approach to reforming 15 pieces of legislation regarding labour standards, wages, occupational health and safety, and other labour regulations in the province. Despite its title, the “consultation paper” involved not a single public meeting or discussion. As a response, NDP Opposition Labour Critic, David Forbes, will host town town hall meetings across the province throughout September to solicit input from citizens, business groups, and trade unions about the proposal to reform Saskatchewan’s labour laws.

Information about the Official Opposition Labour Review Consultation Tour can be found at www.ndpcaucus.sk.ca.

Edmonton nurses strike hits two months
August 5 marked two months since the beginning of a nurses strike at the Rivera Riverbend seniors facility in Edmonton. Eighty registered practical nurses and nursing aides have been walking the lines because their employer, Revera Inc, has been paying them wages and benefits below the industry average and have no short-term disability insurance. While the workers union, the Alberta Union of Public Employees, has continued talks with the company, they say the company has produced no satisfactory offer.

Meanwhile, workers represented by AUPE at Edmonton’s Devonshire Care Centre ratified their first collective agreement. The three-year contract brings wages up to the Alberta Health Services rate of pay, guaranteed health benefits, and a pension plan.


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