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Labour Day Offers No Rest for BC's Union Movement

Three provincial labour leaders reflect on a holiday born of struggle.

By George Heyman, Judy Darcy and Barry O'Neill 5 Sep 2005 | TheTyee.ca

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[Editor's note: Below are excerpts from messages sent by three union officials to their members this Labour Day. A BC labour rally is scheduled for noon in Burnaby.]

George Heyman, President BC Government and Service Employees' Union:

Business spokespeople often insist unions are a thing of the past - perhaps necessary once but no longer needed by workers, and certainly not welcome in the competitive global business environment.

On Labour Day -- the one day set aside to honour workers and our contribution to the economy, society and history -- it's a good time to reflect on what nonsense this is.

Thousands of workers in British Columbia are locked out of their workplace or on strike because their employers want more power, or more money. If these workers can win the job security, wage increases and respect they deserve it will only be because they have unions.

At Telus for example workers have had no wage increase for five years; more than 3,000 workers have been laid off. Yet the company made profits of more than a billion dollars in the last two years alone. Top managers enjoyed wage increases of 54 to 88 percent and CEO Darren Entwhistle, after only four years on the job, is eligible for a gold-plated pension of $700,000 a year.

The company has demanded the right to contract out work, planning to send jobs to the Philippines. Telus locked workers out when they refused to sign a contract on these terms.

It's a similar story at Teck-Cominco where workers tightened their belts to help the corporation during the lean times. Now corporate profits have soared. Teck-Cominco earned more than $450 million in the first six months of this year, but the company will not provide the wage increases and pension improvements the workers deserve.

CBC management has a similar vision. They demand the "flexibility" to keep many workers constantly on short term contracts, but still expect creativity, loyalty and commitment.

Support the workers at Teck-Cominco, CBC and Telus when you get the chance. These disputes are symptomatic of a business environment where private and public employers alike want a union-free workplace where they can wield more power, at the expense of the workers who deliver the services, create the products and generate the profits.

Judy Darcy, secretary-business manager of the Hospital Employees' Union:

Health care workers are dealing with conditions in BC hospitals and residential care facilities that are nothing short of astonishing: crushing workloads, reduced staffing levels, increased health and safety hazards, and mounting retention and recruitment problems. These are the warning signs of a system in crisis.

In some of our long-term care homes, short-staffing has meant bed-ridden seniors don't get turned often enough. Others are wakened and dressed at 5 a.m., but not fed until 8 a.m. In our hospitals, staff shoulder heavy workloads and are being pushed into doing excessive overtime, creating dangerous conditions for workers and patients.

And Hospital Employees' Union members report that they are working through lunches and coffee breaks, and often coming in early or staying late, just to get the job done.

These reports from the front lines are becoming the new "normal" in health care - and that can't be allowed to continue.

What's needed now are common sense solutions that will substantially improve health care. And HEU members are ideally situated to actively contribute to these solutions.

Consider just a few of the jobs they do: admission and discharge clerks, unit coordinators, pharmacy and lab assistants, orthopaedic and cardio techs, perfusionists, LPNs and care aides, trades, cooks, cleaners and medical transcriptionists.

Our members know what it will take to make health care better.

After all, HEU is more than a union of health care workers. We're a union of experts.

Barry O'Neill, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, BC:

Labour Day recognizes the role that working people play in the building and maintenance of this society of ours. It is one of the few - too few - acknowledgements of working people's contribution to Canadian society.

For the rest of the year, we're fed a mainstream media myth that those who labour are not terribly important. In popular culture like movies and TV serials, it's as if they don't exist-or, if they do, then only as background figures or even objects of ridicule.

When unions are featured, the theme is frequently one of heavies slugging it out on the picket line. In the daily media, organized workers usually get attention when contract negotiations loom, or when there's a strike or lockout.

The day-to-day efforts of trade unions - meeting with members, presenting briefs to municipal councils and other government bodies, joining in community fundraising efforts such as United Way - are seldom deemed newsworthy.

And there's the concept, fostered by big media, that workers are "someone else." In the frenzy of privatization by governments like Gordon Campbell's Liberals, we're told the province can save millions by contracting out hospital or municipal services. The much lower wages paid to the privatized work force are touted as a victory for common sense. Meanwhile, they've managed to ghettoize thousands of British Columbians into a low-wage labour pool.

And that affects all of us. For who are these workers but your friends and neighbours - those who pay taxes, rub elbows with you at parent-teacher meetings or push the shopping cart ahead of yours at the checkout line? And most of these activities are done best when one has a decent income.

Yet that message is lost, it seems, on many employers. Right now, Telus workers are on the line after being locked out by a highly profitable telecommunications employer intent on busting their union and contracting jobs out of the country. In Whistler, CUPE civic employees for months have been trying to get their municipal employer to recognize that it costs a lot to live in the resort community, and they need a pay scale that reflects that reality and allows them to remain fully contributing residents.

So on this Labour Day, let's do more than simply acknowledge the role of working people. Let's pledge to support our neighbours as they struggle against privatization, contracting out and wage cutbacks.

The BC Federation of Labour announces that it will be holding a Labour Day rally in support of workers on picket lines around the province Monday at noon at the corner of Kingsway and Boundary Road in front of Swangard Stadium in Burnaby.  [Tyee]

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