News

'Biggest Rollback of Worker Rights in Canadian History'

That's how one scholar terms Campbell-era policies. Part two of the decade's top 10 labour stories.

By Tom Sandborn 7 Sep 2010 | TheTyee.ca

Tom Sandborn was born in Alaska and raised in the wilderness by wolves. Later, Jesuits at the University of San Francisco and radical feminists in Vancouver generously gave time and energy to the difficult task of educating and humanizing him. Tom has a formal education, too: a BA from UBC. He has been practicing the dark arts of journalism off and on ever since university, and now also has about five decades of social justice, peace and environmental campaigning under his belt.

Tom's goal is to live up to the classic definition of a journalist's job from H. L. Menken - to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Reporting Beat: Labour and social justice, health policy, and occasionally environmental issues.

What is the most important issue facing British Columbians?: Two key issues face BC residents (and they're both so compelling and complex that Tom refuses to rank them): income equality and environmental degradation. Both desperately need solutions.

image atom
Teachers Mark Beadet and Nicole Beaudet of Maple Ridge at 2005 BCTF support rally. Photo: Nick Westover.

Yesterday we kicked off our Labour Week coverage by presenting five of the top labour stories of the past decade, an era shaped by sweeping policy changes by the Campbell government as well as wider economic forces. Our list is based on conversations with union and business leaders, academics and activists. Yesterday's stories included the changing face of B.C. labour, Bill 29 and the Supreme Court ruling against it, sliding workplace safety, regulatory changes crimping organizers, and B.C.'s lowest minimum wage in the country. Today we round out the top 10 list, followed by some perspectives from people we interviewed to create the list.

6. The Stranger at the Door: Temporary Foreign Workers and Response

One of the stories that just kept coming all decade had to do with the controversial increases in the number of non-Canadian workers brought here as temporary workers, with critical comment focused both on the exploitation these workers were exposed to by their vulnerable status and the impact these labour imports had on the ordinary workings of supply and demand, making it easier for employers to keep wages down and unions weak.

In 2006, controversy swirled around a group of European ironworkers brought in to work on the Golden Ears Bridge project. That same year, a group of Latin American tunnel workers hired on Vancouver's Canada Line project joined the Construction and Specialized Workers Local 1611 after telling union organizers they were being paid substandard wages and provided with housing and other benefits inferior to those the company provided European workmates.

This dispute, which has dragged on through numerous Labour Relations Board hearings, led to a BC Human Rights Tribunal ruling http://www.joconl.com/article/id25136 that held the Latin American workers had experienced wage and benefit discrimination while working on the Vancouver project.

While construction workers made a lot of temporary foreign worker headlines in B.C., the majority of the over 250,000 temporary workers who were in Canada in 2008 worked in Canadian fields. One of the ongoing and important labour stories of the decade has been about attempts to unionize agricultural workers, an effort led by the United Food and Commercial Workers through their Agricultural Workers Alliance, which operates 10 store-front organizing centres across the country, including one in the Fraser Valley, where several successful organizing drives have been conducted this decade.

The most recent example of ways offshore workers can face exploitation in Canada (and what unions can do to counter it) was the revelation this summer by the B.C. Federation of Labour that a group of African workers (in this case recent immigrants) employed by a contractor to do silviculture work for the provincial government were being housed in filthy conditions, subjected to death threats, worked 15-hour days and paid erratically and at a lower rate than promised.

7. The Big Get Together in the Woods

In 2004, the Industrial Wood and Allied Workers union, the industry giant that had represented B.C. loggers and millworkers for decades, voted to merge with the United Steelworkers, forming what was described then as Canada's largest private sector union. The merger represented the end of an era, retiring the IWA identity after a tumultuous history that began in 1937, and came as a combination of difficulties created by trade agreements, struggles with environmentalists, climate-change-induced pine beetle infestations and profligate raw log exports shrank the B.C. work force in the province's woods and mills.

8. Showdowns at the Public Service Corral

Some of our sources saw a trio of public sector strikes, taken together, as one of the decade's big labour stories. The Ferry Workers strike in 2003, the HEU strike in 2004 and the BCTF strike in 2005 all followed a similar pattern. The strikes were defined as "illegal" and elicited strident media coverage about "holding the public to ransom," while other unions (most notably CUPE) and community groups organized mass pickets and other solidarity actions, with some militants hoping the specific strikes could be kicked up into a general strike of all organized workers against a government seen as profoundly anti-labour.

In all three cases, union leadership climbed down (typically at the urging of the B.C. Fed) from any visions of a general strike and cut deals with the employer that were met with accusations of "sell out" from the most militant members and observers, while more centrist commentators said union leadership had settled for the best deals possible with a hostile government.

9. Family Feuds

Organized labour is like a family in some ways, and the B.C. labour movement was not without its moments of internecine conflict. In 2003 and 2004, the soon to be defunct IWA came under fire for what some observers saw as illicit attempts to sign voluntary agreements with private contractors like Compass and Sodexho that were eager to take advantage of the business opportunities created by Bill 29 and its mandate for health-care sector privatization. These "partnership" deals were viewed as collusion with the government in its attacks on the Hospital Employees Union, which had signed valid contracts with public employers to represent the workers.

In 2009, an attempt by the B.C. Nurses Union to raid the licensed practical nurses represented by the Hospital Employees Union brought down disciplinary action by the B.C. Federation of Labour and the Canadian Labour Congress, while the raid was unpopular with some of the BCNU's own membership as well.

Several other B.C. unions found themselves in the uncomfortable role of employers enmeshed in labour disputes with their own unionized employees this decade.

In 2007, the B.C. Teachers' Federation lived through a bitter dispute with its research and professional staff represented by local 464 of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers.

In 2009, the Telecommunication Workers Union, which represents workers at Telus, faced a labour dispute with 13 office workers represented by the Canadian Office and Professional Workers.

10. Employers Weigh in: Agenda Unfinished

In addition to conversations with union officers, members and staff, as well as union-side lawyers and academic experts, The Tyee spoke with some prominent spokespeople from the other side of the bargaining table, including Jock Finlayson at the B.C. Business Council and Phil Hochstein, of the non-union construction employers' umbrella organization the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association of BC. Both Finlayson and Hochstein agree that the decade has been remarkable for relative labour peace.

For Finlayson, among the decade's key stories are the reductions in union density and the increased role of public sector unions in the movement.

Hochstein highlighted what he saw as the need for expanded immigration and use of temporary foreign workers to meet employers' hiring needs. He also said restrictive labour practices enforced by B.C. union contracts were responsible for what he said were B.C.'s lower-than-Canadian-average productivity figures.

'Biggest rollback of worker rights in Canadian history'

So, what conclusions can we draw from these stories and from the reflections of many seasoned labour relations observers? Here are a few.

The decade has seen the Campbell Liberals radically re-structure the legal and administrative bodies that govern labour relations in B.C., mainly in ways that tilt the regulatory playing field to give employers the home-team advantage on wage rates, employment standards, compensation for injured workers and the creation of new unions and union contracts.

"The removal of union members from Employment Standards protections, the exclusion of farm workers and the other changes in Employment Standards mean that at least a third of the workforce has been removed from ESA protection," noted SFU women's studies, economics and political science Prof. Marjorie Griffin Cohen.

"We are losing union density and that will continue," commented CUPE B.C. President Barry O'Neill. "Limits on union growth have been created by changes in the Labour Relations Code."

"One of the big stories this decade has been the destruction of employment standards in B.C.," HEU media spokeswoman Margi Blamey said.

Bill Saunders, head of the Vancouver and District Labour Council agrees. "The new rules the Liberals have brought in favor the corporations. They want to create a desperate workforce."

Lucy Luna, who organizes farmworkers in the Fraser Valley for the Agricultural Workers Alliance, says that one ruling by the newly employer friendly Labour Relations Board in 2008, which made temporary workers fear that employers can now get away with punishing them for joining a union by sending them home as soon as they unionize "has made my work almost impossible."

Sauder School of Business professor emeritus Mark Thompson calls the changes to the Employment Standards Act "the biggest roll back of worker rights in Canadian history."

Kim Pollack of the United Steelworkers told The Tyee that changes made to the Forestry Act in 2004 created a much more dangerous workplace, with safety de-regulated, increased subcontracting and a race to the bottom on safety procedures, resulting in 43 deaths in the woods the next year.

As evidenced by this testimony from the woods, worker safety continues to be an ongoing and sometimes heartbreaking story, as B.C. workers continue to die or come home crippled while trying to earn a living.

And more and more temporary foreign workers are being brought into B.C. under federally sponsored programs that critics say are consciously designed to drive down local wages and insulate employers both from the law of supply and demand and from collective bargaining.

Seth Klein, of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said that the explosive growth in temporary foreign worker programs was breaking a long established social contract, which offered new workers a pathway to citizenship and full rights.

"That contract has been broken, and the quid pro quo is no longer on offer, all in the name of worker discipline," he said.

Several of the experts who spoke with The Tyee noted that the response of organized labour in B.C. to temporary foreign worker issues has been remarkably free of the racism that has blemished union response to off-shore workers in times past. This time round, instead of lobbying to keep foreign workers out, B.C.'s labour movement has enlisted the new workers into existing unions, set up store-front service centres to meet their needs and called on the government to allow guest workers a pathway to citizenship.

Meanwhile, the face of the labour movement is changing, with more and more of its membership concentrated in public-sector bodies, many with predominantly female and visible minority memberships. In another significant change, the IWA, the logger and mill workers' union that was for many years an iconic presence in B.C. labour relations, was absorbed by the United Steel Workers this decade, and union density continued to fall.

Bill 29 and after

Some of the province's key labour stories started in the legislative assembly or the courtrooms of the nation. At the beginning of the tumultuous decade, the provincial government passed Bill 29, a questionable piece of legislation that allowed the biggest mass layoffs of women workers in Canadian history, over 8,000 workers, only to see the Supreme Court of Canada strike down key provisions of the controversial law. In a landmark ruling that almost everyone The Tyee contacted included in their top 10 story list, the court disallowed as unconstitutional legislative language that allegedly gave the government power to unilaterally abandon settled contracts with health-care workers and outsource their jobs to lower paying private contractors.

From a union perspective, a second good news story related to Bill 29 and its partial invalidation is that the HEU has been successful in re-organizing almost all the jobs that were privatized and contracted out under the bill's flawed mandate. So, while health-care workers continue to face challenges, including government supported de-accreditation and contract flipping in the long-term care sector, whatever dreams the Liberals may have had of creating a system free of unions have not been realized.

"Not a week goes by that we aren't still dealing with the consequences of Bill 29," said HEU secretary/business manager Judy Darcy told the Tyee. "The Supreme Court decision, while a huge win, didn't give successorship rights when work is contracted out to private sector employers and still allowed contract flipping and pressure on workers to grant concessions to prevent contracting out. Public sector bargaining in B.C. is now the most restrictive I have seen, and I have bargained in jurisdictions right across Canada."

Changes to laws, regs hurt organizing

Other key Liberal legislative and regulatory initiatives which are still in effect revamped Employment Standards legislation, the functioning of Worksafe BC (the agency formerly known as the WCB) and the Labour Relations Board, all in ways that critics say privilege the agendas of management and employers over workers' rights.

These changes, say the critics, have created a province in which it is shamefully possible to work full time and still not be able to house and feed yourself adequately, where the government has given up on any serious attempts to regulate child labour and worker safety, where child poverty is higher than anywhere else in Canada, where foreign workers are brought in by the thousands to flip burgers and harvest crops but denied a right to settle and make a life in Canada, and where it is harder and harder for workers to organize for better conditions via trade unions.

Within those unions, some rank and file activists are expressing impatience with a leadership they see as insufficiently militant, a story that has been a hardy perennial all through the history of the movement.

Gene McGuckin, for example, a retired CEP member, shop steward, local executive member and contract negotiator, was one of the founders of the Prepare the General Strike organization. He is critical of B.C. Fed leadership during the decade, and identifies as one of the province's key labour stories this decade the "linked defeats and union-brass sell-outs of the ferry workers' strike in 2003, the HEU strike in 2004 and the BCTF strike in 2005.

"In each case the defiant workers had significant-to-huge public support," asserted McGuckin, but the eventual settlements were in his view "capitulations" that cost union members wages and benefits and hurt B.C. citizens by resulting in higher ferry charges and poorer levels of health care and education.

B.C. Fed president Jim Sinclair says he has a different view of history than McGuckin and other critics of his leadership. "The disputes he mentions showed real increases in solidarity."

CUPE B.C.'s Barry O'Neill, while not endorsing McGuckin's criticisms of Fed leadership, did point out that his union had organized the largest solidarity walkouts since the 1980s during the HEU and BCTF strikes McGuckin cites.

"We're in time of transition, with some weakening of militancy," he said. "Times are different but we should be moving toward more militancy. We have been too dependent on friendly governments."

Living wage breakthrough in New West

Darryl Walker, president of the B.C. Government and Service Employees Union, while, like O'Neill, declining to endorse McGuckin's critique of union leadership, said that critical views like those expressed by the veteran rank and file member were "not necessarily unhealthy. We need to hold on to views like this. Sometimes we don't go far enough. However, in 2003-2005, I think each struggle was pushed to the right level. You can be damned in hindsight, and maybe mistakes were made, but I think most members were happy with the decisions made by officers and leadership."

If B.C.'s labour movement took a beating from BC Liberal government policies in the past decade, it gained a victory this year within the council chambers of New Westminster. The campaign for a living wage in B.C., which has been actively supported by organized labour, got a big boost when New Westminster became http://livingwageforfamilies.ca/ the first municipality to commit that all its direct employees and all those who work for significant city contractors must receive a living wage of over $18 an hour.

"New Westminister was a win, and a good one," said the B.C. Fed's Sinclair. "It is only one of the many pieces of evidence that the labour movement is still alive and kicking, and fighting on many fronts, from strikes to regulatory reform to municipal byelaws.

"The Fed has moved more to seeing that we represent all working people, not just our members, although they are, of course, very important," said Sinclair. "We are there for working people in general. Just look at our campaigns to increase the minimum wage and protect public services."

Tomorrow: Working multiple jobs to survive: Inside the lives of B.C.'s most precariously employed.  [Tyee]

Read more: Labour + Industry

Share this article

The Tyee is supported by readers like you

Join us and grow independent media in Canada

Get The Tyee in your inbox

LATEST STORIES

The Barometer

Which of B.C.’s proportional-representation options do you prefer?

Take this week's poll