Edmonton activists stage 'wait-in' at MPs office
Union activists in Edmonton participated in a national 'wait-in' to protest the punitive anti-worker Bill C-377 today.
The private members bill, which targets unions through punitive accounting regulations, is expected to be voted on this week, and could go to the senate by Thursday. In Edmonton, labour activists, including members of the Alberta Federation of Labour, camped out for several hours in the office of James Rajotte asking to speak to the Conservative MP.
"This is a political bill. In the same way that they have cut funding to environmental groups and women's groups, they are trying to weaken and muzzle a strong progressive voice," AFL president Gil McGowan said. "Labour groups all over Canada are visiting their Members of Parliament today to let them know that this bill is unacceptable."
The bill has been slammed by the Canadian Bar Association because provisions in the bill violate guarantees of freedom of expression and association, making it vulnerable to a court challenge under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
"Bill C-377 casts a wide net," McGowan said. "It's targeted at unions, but will also harm other organizations, including companies that do business with unions, legal associations, professional associations and charities. It's a complete mess."
Last Friday, amendments to the bill were being debated, but time ran out for debate. Under normal circumstances, the bill would have been put aside until the New Year. But backbencher Alberta MP Earl Dreeshan gave up the time that had been allotted to his private members bill so that C-377 could get an additional hour of debate. The bill goes for a second hour of debate today at 5:30 PM Central Time (3:30 MT).
"This is straight out of the Tea Party playbook: undermine unions and defund anyone who disagrees with them," McGowan said. "We're fighting this because Canada needs progressive voices who will stand up for health care, for seniors, for workers, and for the kind of society that Canadians are proud of."
Gil McGowan, President, Alberta Federation of Labour at 780-218-9888 (cell)
Olav Rokne, AFL Communications Director at 780-289-6528 (cell) or via email [email protected]
Province’s minimum wage again the lowest in Canada
Edmonton - Alberta has reclaimed the dubious distinction of having the worst minimum wage in the country.
On Saturday, Dec. 1, the minimum wage in Saskatchewan was increased from $9.50 to $10. This leaves Alberta as the province with the lowest-paid workers in the country. It was a title the province had relinquished for only three short months after Alberta increased its minimum wage in September from $9.40 to $9.75.
“It shows how out-of-line this province is with the rest of the country,” Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan said. “During the three months that Alberta didn’t have the lowest, we had the second-lowest minimum wage.”
Workers in British Columbia, Manitoba and Ontario can all expect a minimum of $10.25 per hour. Throughout the Maritime Provinces, workers will see $10.00 per hour on their paycheques. In Nunavut, the minimum wage is $11.00. About 26,000 Alberta workers earn the minimum wage of $9.75.
“We have the strongest economy, and the greatest demand for workers in Canada. As a province we can afford to pay workers fairly, but we aren’t.” McGowan said. “Why is it that the province that has the greatest wealth is the stingiest with some of its most disadvantaged citizens?”
Since 2011, Alberta’s minimum wage has tied to an average of changes to Alberta’s annual average weekly earnings and changes to the Consumer Price Index in Alberta. Changes to minimum wage occur September 1 of each year and are announced with three months’ notice.
“Indexing the minimum wage to inflation makes sense,” McGowan said. “But it does no good to make cost-of-living adjustments if you’re starting from a wage that is simply too low. A terrible wage that keeps up with inflation will remain a terrible wage.”
Some workers in Alberta – those who serve alcohol and may have their income supplemented by tips – are subject to an even lower minimum wage of $9.05 an hour. Some restaurants have taken advantage of this system to pay their serving staff the reduced rate even if they almost never serve alcohol, and absolutely never get tips.
“This separate minimum wage, which was introduced last year, is a loophole that some employers are exploiting,” McGowan said. “There are workers in Alberta paid almost a full dollar less per hour than any other workers in Canada. The Premier needs to address this problem.”
Gil McGowan, President, Alberta Federation of Labour at 780-218-9888 (cell)
Olav Rokne, AFL Communications Director at 780-289-6528 (cell) or via email [email protected].
CALGARY — A Redford government plan to target employers who repeatedly defy the province's safety laws with new penalties of up to $10,000 is being opposed by an industry group representing 2,000 construction firms.
The Alberta Construction Association says the government's new laws to implement administrative penalties next year are too vague, complicated and there's no proof that they'll be effective in making work sites safer.
"There's a presumption that employers are the bad guys, and we'll just ramp up the fines and we'll fix those bad guys," Ken Gibson, executive director of the association, said Wednesday.
"It's not evidence-based. There's no suggestion we can see that it actually is going to work."
Gibson said the association is in favour of a separate government plan that will allow provincial health and safety officers to hand out on-the-spot tickets to everyone on a job site, including owners and workers. The ticket system will help discourage more straightforward safety infractions on job sites, such as an employee who refuses to wear a helmet, he said.
Despite the concerns, the Redford government is pushing forward in the legislature with the two sets of new workplace penalties.
Administrative penalties — spelled out in Bill 6, the Protections and Compliance Statutes Amendment Act — will apply mostly to employers who break the law, and will allow for penalties of up to $10,000.
"There've been discussions with various employers' groups on this," Human Services Minister Dave Hancock said Wednesday, adding it's "normal" to have some opposition to new penalties.
The government's second move on workplace safety fines will be through a ticketing system, to be brought into force through regulations next year. It will allow for both workers and owners to be ticketed to the tune of hundreds of dollars, he explained.
"They're basically something that will sting a little if it goes to a worker, but it's not devastating," Hancock said.
But the ticketing plan is being panned by groups representing workers, who call it a "blame-the-victim" approach.
"At the end of the day, workplace safety is primarily the responsibility of employers and government, as regulator," said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.
McGowan noted that, in court, companies can be hit with a fine as high as $500,000 for a first offence. He's concerned the administrative penalties, which top out at $10,000, will replace full legal prosecutions against companies that break the law.
Not all businesses are opposed to the new administrative penalties.
"Right now there are employers in the province of Alberta who are not taking safety seriously," said Dave Fennell, senior safety adviser for Imperial Oil Resources, noting there was one week last month when five Alberta workers died on separate job sites.
"Just like any other law in the province, you need to be held accountable," Fennell said. "If the administrative fines are a way of making these employers accountable, then we are supportive of that."
The Wildrose party wants the proceeds of such workplace fines to be put into a dedicated safety fund, instead of flowing into general government revenues.
The NDP and Alberta Liberals say although they generally support the government's push for tougher penalties, one issue that remains outstanding is the lack of coverage for paid farm workers under the province's Occupational Health and Safety Act and the Workers' Compensation Act.
Under questioning from the opposition, the Tory government said Wednesday it's still working on a response to a report completed last February from the Farm Safety Advisory council, a government-appointed group that's made recommendations on improving the industry's safety record.
Calgary Herald, Thurs Nov 1 2012
Byline: Kelly Cryderman
BROOKS, Alta. — Alberta's labour movement wants a public inquiry into what went wrong at XL Foods' beef plant in Brooks.
It was closed after E. coli contamination was found in meat processed more than a month ago.
"Confidence in the Alberta beef brand has been shaken, confidence in our industry has been shaken, our customers, especially in our largest market in the United States, wonder if they can trust our product," said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.
"That has profound long-term implications for the health of this industry and all the jobs it creates," he said at an Oct. 18 news conference in Brooks.
AFI and the United Food and Commercial Workers said food inspection should be transferred from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to Health Canada because it is a public health matter.
The inquiry should also determine if the agency can do its job properly as the federal government further cuts its budget by more than $50 million.
JBS USA has agreed to manage the plant, and the union is confident it can work with the new company.
"We are hopeful JBS will come in here with an open mind and do what is best for the workers and the industry," said local 401 UFCW president Doug O'Halloran, who represents 2,200 employees at the XL plant in Brooks.
"They've got to make a dollar. We know that, but it can't be at the risk of food safety," he said in an interview.
"XL has not done a good job. Nilsson brothers, I believe, didn't know 50 percent of what was going on in that plant or else they couldn't allow these things to happen," he said in reference to company owners Brian and Lee Nilsson.
He claims upper management dismissed concerns from food inspectors, and O'Halloran said those people should be removed once JBS is installed.
Food safety training and upgrades on hazard analysis critical control points was done, but skills need to be upgraded regularly, he added.
"There is never enough training and never enough food safety training in these plants. The priority is production, the priority is getting as many cattle processed as you can, it is not on quality," O'Halloran said.
The CFIA said a change in management or ownership would not influence its decision to reopen the plant.
"This development will not affect our assessment. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency's top priority is consumer safety so this facility's operating licence will not be renewed until we are completely satisfied that this plant can produce safe food," said Paul Mayers, associate vice-president for CFIA programs.
The union expressed doubt about the competency of CFIA inspectors, but Mayers said XL staff should have come forward if they had solid evidence. No one did, he added.
"I would like to assure all Canadians our inspectors are professional and do their job diligently. Our job is food safety," said Mayers.
"We remain open to working with any staff to improve food safety. This is why we have reached out to the union several times," he said.
Officials from JBS USA met with XL staff Oct. 22, and industrial relations staff met with the union Oct. 23.
JBS said it would honour the current labour contract, which expires at the end of 2013.
About 2,200 people received layoff notices last week, but JBS indicated they would all be called back to work.
The Western Producer, Oct 26 2012
Byline; Barbara Duckworth
It's been a sad week for workplace accidents in Alberta.
Five workers have died in as many days, in unrelated accidents.
The first accident happened Monday and involved a man who was on a scaffold, which rolled into a hole on a work site near Wainwright.
There were three deaths on Wednesday and a fifth on Friday, one involving a 19-year-old man who was killed after a ramp fell on him at a site near Conklin.
According to Gil McGowan, the President of the Federation of Labour, the government talks a good game in workplace safety but doesn't put their money where their mouth is.
"For years Alberta has had the second-highest rate of workplace fatalities in the country and we do have a very fast-paced labour market and economy," he said. "But even given that history, five deaths in one week is virtually unprecedented and for us in the labour movement, it really raises a red flag."
McGowan adds Alberta still has fewer workplace health and safety inspectors than virtually any other province per worker and is pushing for more since we have more workers in dangerous occupations than other provinces.
"We also have a government that is very, very reluctant to prosecute employers who break the rules and put their workers at risk," he said. "A lot of employers unfortunately think that there aren't that serious consequences for breaking the law when it comes to workplace safety and that needs to change."
No work will be completed on the sites as the deaths of the five workers are being investigated.
660 News, Sat Oct 20 2012
Byline: Megan Robinson and Chris Bowen
EDMONTON - Five people are dead in as many days after a spate of workplace accidents around the province this week.
Occupational Health and Safety spokesman Brookes Merritt said the incidents are not related but appear to be "a tragic coincidence."
Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan said the number of workplace deaths is deeply troubling.
"Five fatalities in a week, even in a face-paced economy like this, is almost unprecedented, and certainly unacceptable," he said. "It demonstrates there is still a lot of work to be done."
Merritt said the first fatality happened Monday and involved a 56-year-old man who was on a scaffold that rolled into a 1.2-metre hole on a work site near Wainwright. Merritt said the worker was ejected from the scaffold, hit his head during the fall and was taken to hospital by air ambulance. The man died on Thursday morning.
On Wednesday afternoon, a man fuelling a forklift at Mo Tires in Lethbridge was pinned between the vehicle and a shed. He was pronounced dead in hospital.
A third worker died about 10 a.m. Thursday after falling inside a chimney stack at the Battle River power plant southeast of Edmonton. He died at the scene.
Later that day, around 1:30 p.m., a 19-year-old man died after a ramp fell on him at the Blackgold oilfield site near Conklin.
A fifth worker was killed at about 4:45 a.m. Friday at a work site 25 kilometres south of Grande Prairie. In that case, a 29-year-old man died after being crushed between a piece of heavy machinery and a tank.
"Any time we see a fatality at the workplace it's tragic," Merritt said. "Investigating this number of fatalities in such a short period of time is equally tragic, if not more so."
Merritt said investigators are also looking into a case where three workers were injured at a site northwest of Edson on Thursday morning. The three were hit by a disconnected snubbing hose and were taken to hospital, one by air ambulance, with undisclosed injuries.
Stop-work orders have been issued at all of the sites, and investigators are looking into what happened in each case.
"Our Occupational Health and Safety investigators are determined to investigate each incident rigorously and ensure that the results of this investigations help us learn how to prevent similar incidents in the future," Merritt said.
McGowan said the deaths should be a "red waving flag" for government and industry, showing that the issue of workplace injury and death is still not being properly addressed.
He said the deaths underline a need to increase the number of workplace safety inspectors in the province, which he said still lags behind other provinces.
With about 20 per cent of the province's population working in high-risk industries such as construction and the oilfield — more than double the percentage in most other provinces — McGowan said Alberta should also have a greater than average number of inspectors.
"We hear a lot of rhetoric from the government and employers, but neither group seems to be putting its money where its mouth is," he said. "The death toll continues to mount."
Human Services Minister Dave Hancock was not available for comment on Friday.
There have been 103 work-related fatalities in Alberta this year; 37 workplace fatalities, 28 motor vehicle accidents, and 38 from occupational diseases. There were 43 deaths from workplace fatalities and 28 from motor vehicle accidents in 2011.
Merritt said there are currently 122 OHS investigators in the province, and there will be 132 by the beginning of 2013, an increase of 30 officers from 2009.
"The department is continuously looking at how best to use its resources to achieve its ultimate goal — to have no workplace injuries or fatalities in the province," he said.
Edmonton and District Labour Council president Brian Henderson called the week's deaths "horrible."
"When we have this many fatalities in one week, it just further elaborates how much workplace safety needs to be given priority with this government," he said.
Henderson said in addition to more investigators he wants to see stiffer penalties for companies found guilty of workplace health and safety violations.
"It's not just finding an employer guilty and giving them a fine ...," he said. "With five (deaths) alone this week, what is really being done out there?"
Jeff Wilson, Human Services critic for the Wildrose Party, said he, too, thinks government should do more to support workplace safety, including by further increasing investigators and identifying high-risk employers.
"The strength of our economy rests on workers being safe and secure in our workforce, and we have to do what we can to make sure they get home safe every night," he said.
The Edmonton Journal, Friday Oct 19 2012
Byline: Jana E. Prudent
Union holds news conference to discuss safety protocols, meat production expectationsThe union representing workers at XL Foods Inc. is calling for a public inquiry into the massive beef recallat the company's meat-packing plant in Brooks, Alta.
Doug O'Halloran, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401, said the federal government is to blame for cutting back on much-needed funding.
"We don't think the government can do the inquiry, we think they are part of the problem," he said at a news conference Wednesday afternoon.
O'Halloran said Canadian Food Inspection Agency inspectors are doing a good job, but added there needs to be more of them.
He also voiced concerns that CFIA inspectors don't have the authority to shut down a line if they think there is a safety concern.
O'Halloran said employees have been getting paid since the closure of the plant, and urged employee involvement going forward.
“It’s tragic that we had to have this situation, but I think in the long run we’re going to have an industry that’s better, that’s greater," O’Halloran said.
"We want to work with XL, we want them to be part of the solution, but they’ve got to listen to the workers.”
Employees speak out
XL Foods employee Wilfred Garcia says workers feel pressure to keep production lines moving — sometimes at the expense of food safety practices.
"There's not enough employees for the 4,000 pieces they process every day...and that's why there's this problem too," Garcia said.
XL 'saddened' by union claims
XL Foods released a statement late Wednesday afternoon in response to the union. The company said management has always been open to discuss plant operations with workers.
“I am saddened that the UFCW has chosen to attack the workmanship of its many members. We have extensive training programs for new workers and hold our workers in the highest regard for their abilities,” said co-CEO Brian Nilsson in the release.
The statement also noted that the line speed at XL Foods is within regulatory requirements.
Quebec E. coli illness confirmed
O’Halloran's comments came just before a 12th case of E. coli was confirmed. A Quebec investigation linked an illness in the province two weeks ago to E. coli O157, the strain at the centre of the XL Foods investigation. The affected individual has since recovered.
That brings the total of E. coli cases to 12 — seven cases in Alberta, one in Newfoundland, one in B.C. and three in Quebec — according to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
'Culture change needed'
Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, said Wednesday there needs to be a change to the employer's approach to food safety.
"There is a culture in that plant that puts priority on quantity over quality and until that changes we’re going to continue to struggle," said McGowan.
Keith Warriner, director of the University of Guelph’s food safety and quality assurance program, said there has been a lot of finger-pointing over food safety at the plant.
“In a lot of ways, it’s passing the buck,” said Warriner.
“Workers passing the buck to the management, management passing the buck to the CFIA.”
Warriner also said it was “obvious” to him the CFIA is complacent in stepping back.
XL Foods silence 'damaging'
Alberta's Wildrose Party Leader Danielle Smith said XL Foods’ silence over the E. coli problems at the Brooks, Alta., plant has been damaging. “I think that the principal responsibility now for communicating with the public comes down to the company,” said Smith.
“I'd like to see XL Foods, someone, stand up in a press conference with the regulators at their side and talk about what they're doing to restore confidence to make people aware that they've taken this seriously, they apologize for it.”
Smith also said federal and provincial officials may not have done everything possible to deal with the situation.
Alberta NDP Leader Brian Mason said repeated comments from federal officials that the system works well were ridiculous.
“They're not interested in getting to the facts and finding out what went wrong and being honest and straightforward and transparent with the public about something as important as the safety of the food that they eat and serve their children," said Mason.
"We need to have an inquiry and find out what in fact went wrong.”
The Lakeside Packers plant shut down Sept. 26 after the CFIA linked the facility to several beef products tainted with E. coli. More than 1,800 products have been recalled.
CFIA expanded its beef recall again Wednesday night to include some beef jerky sold in New Brunswick and corned beef sold in Quebec. Product details can be found on the CFIA's website.
Agency officials said they will check safety controls and determine if XL Foods has fixed the problems that were uncovered by federal inspectors.
On Tuesday, XL Foods said it had addressed all the safety issues and concerns raised by the CFIA.
"The company has completed implementing corrective action requests issued by the CFIA following the findings of their investigation," XL Foods said in a statement.
CBC News, Oct 10 2012
CALGARY — As inspectors descended on the shuttered meat processing plant in Brooks, Alta., Tuesday, the company behind the country's largest beef recall issued its first comments in days.
"We have worked diligently to address all corrective actions and want to thank our employees who have worked tirelessly to prepare us for this inspection," said XL Foods co-CEO Brian Nilsson in a statement Tuesday.
"We will continue to work co-operatively with the (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) as they conduct due diligence and verification of our intensified and enhanced food safety systems."
The CFIA began an inspection of the XL plant Tuesday after the company issued a recall on meat products -- now up to 1,800 different items -- due to E. coli contamination concerns.
The CFIA suspended the plant's licence and inspectors slapped XL with demands, many of them sanitation-related.
Eleven cases of E. coli -- one in B.C., seven in Alberta, two in Quebec and one in Newfoundland and Labrador -- have been linked to XL, says the Public Health Agency of Canada.
The news release said members of the XL community "deeply regret the illnesses caused by the consumption of beef products. Our thoughts are with the affected people at this time."
Guy Gravelle with the CFIA said more information on Tuesday's assessment at the plant would likely be made public Wednesday.
"We're still waiting to hear back from the people we had on the grounds," he said.
The leader of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401, which represents staffers at the plant, said there is still a desperate need for "food safety culture" at the facility.
Doug O'Halloran said for years the union has voiced concerns about training for temporary foreign workers, line speed and the need for whistle-blower protection. "We've dealt with other CEOs in the meat packing industry, but we've never come across anyone who wouldn't at least meet with us to talk about food safety," he said.
O'Halloran and Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan will hold a news conference in Brooks Wednesday.
Meanwhile, XL's handling of public relations -- communicating with media only through occasional statements -- was criticized by Alberta Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith during a luncheon in downtown Calgary.
"I wish the company, XL Foods, had taken a page from Maple Leaf (Foods) when they had their tragedy in 2008," she said, referring to the listeriosis outbreak that killed 22 people.
"The CEO (Michael McCain) was very up front about it, gave press conferences, kept the public informed," she said.
Smith called for a full review once the plant is reopened to understand what broke down in the regulatory and communication processes.
Toronto Sun, Tuesday, Oct 09, 2012
Byline: Jenna McMurray, QMI Agency
With files from Michael Wood
A leaked draft of a farm safety report is drawing new attention to a black hole in Alberta's labour legislation: Farm workers on traditional farms continue to be the only labour group in the province to be excluded from the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA), to serious repercussions.
The Farm Safety Advisory Council was set up two years ago to review existing health and safety laws for farm workers, and to determine whether changes are necessary. The council's report is not public, and is still going through the government approval process. The leaked draft, however, recommended that farm workers remain exempt from health and safety laws. The industry should self-regulate, the report allegedly said.
"Basically (farm workers) have nothing. They're not covered under Workers Compensation legislation. They're not covered under occupational health and safety legislation," said Randy Corbett from the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE). "If there's an accident on the farm, and that's right up to and including fatalities, Occupational Health and Safety won't investigate them because they're excluded from the legislation."
Only in Alberta, Workers Compensation Board (WCB) coverage is completely voluntary for traditional farm workers. Individual farm owners can choose to purchase it for their employees, or not. The AUPE represents nearly 80,000 working Albertans, none of them farm workers.
Between 1983 and 1993, there were 1,365 known deaths on Canadian farms, according to AUPE. Estimates suggest that farmers are five times more likely to be killed through occupation-related accidents than workers in all other industries.
Because of the lack of regulation, the government is relying on "education and awareness" to protect farm workers, according to David Hennig from Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development. The government recognizes that health and safety protection should be improved, and hired the advisory council to come up with recommendations.
The council, however, seems to consist predominately of big industry and government representatives.
The lack of health and safety regulation dates back to the 1950s, when most farms were small and family-owned, and the general consensus was not to interfere in the affairs of family farms.
Indeed today, on small acreages, health and safety issues remain minor. Reuben Loewen, farm owner in Fort St. John and president of Peace Region Forage Seed Association, gets all the work done within the family on his 1000-acre plot, and can't remember ever having a serious incident in his 40 years of work.
Heather Kerschbaumer's seed cleaning plant in Fairview, Golden Acre Seeds, falls under federal jurisdiction and as such has mandatory WCB coverage. But even so, in the more than 20 years of the farm's operations, the worst incident Kerschbaumer can recall among her seven or so staff is a sprained ankle.
In the experience of Kenda Lubeck, farm safety co-ordinator for Alberta Agriculture, small farm owners are generally receptive to improving health and safety conditions for workers.
But there is a difference between a small family farm and a commercial industrial operation. The large farms use heavy-duty equipment, and more of it. "When you get hit with them, you break," said Corbett. The three main risk factors for farm workers are all machine-related, and are the same across Grande Prairie, the province, and Canada: Runovers, rollovers, and entanglements.
Most farms in Alberta are large operations, with Peace Country farms being particularly big. Nationwide, the average farm size is 778 acres, but it is 1130 acres in the Peace, according to the 2011 Census of Agriculture. Province-wide in 2010, the 4,454 largest farms represented only 10% of all farms, but 71% of total revenue. The number of farms in Alberta with $500,000 or more in 2010 revenue increased by 18% from 2006 to 2011 figures, and those with less than $500,000 decreased by 15%.
Specific commercial agribusiness is covered by the Occupat ional Health and Safety Act, including greenhouse, mushroom, sod and nursery farming. But this does not include grain and canola producers.
If a farm worker is seriously injured or killed where there is no OHSA or WCB coverage, the only option he or she has is to sue the employer, and most don't have such resources. The problem is complicated further in the case of temporary foreign migrant labourers, whose short stays prevent them from pursuing compensation from their employers. Of all paid farm employees, 62% were seasonal or temporary, according to the 2011 Census of Agriculture.
Farms and hospitals in Grande Prairie are not required to report farm worker incidents, confirmed Lubeck. The county does not have statistics on the scale of the problem, creating an environment in which it is difficult for farm workers to demand changes to the regulation, should it be needed.
Premier Alison Redford committed to revising farm worker health and safety laws in her 2011 campaign. In line with this, the ministers of human services and agricultural development are meeting next week to look at safety and standards in the farming sector to determine what the next steps should be, confirmed Brookes Merritt from Alberta Human Services.
Grande Prairie Daily Herald-Tribune, Tuesday Oct 02 2012
Byline: Alina Konevski
The Left should remember what the Right has known for years
How ironic that the Right seems more aware than the Left of the crucial importance of unions to progressive politics. In the past, when conservatives were less aggressive, this didn't matter so much. Now, in the age of Stephen Harper and the Tea Party, the stakes are much higher.
In the USA and here in Canada under Harper (and, of course, under Brad Wall in former social democratic homeland Saskatchewan), new laws are sapping the strength and even the existence of unions, too often with little public outcry.
In Parliament, a bill is due for debate and possibly a vote this fall that could cripple unions of all sizes with expensive and nosy paperwork. National Post columnist John Ivison, no fan of the labour movement, wrote that Bill C-377 (Public Financial Disclosure for Labour Organizations) "could shatter the union business model forever."
More worrisome still are recent threats by Parliamentary Secretary Pierre Poilevre to punish the Public Service Alliance of Canada for supporting the Parti-Québecois in Quebec's provincial election by ending automatic union membership in federal workplaces under what's known as the "Rand Formula." Although the majority of workplaces are provincially regulated, this could mark the beginning of the end of Rand and drastically weaken federal public service unions.
Regardless of whether we belong to unions or work in organized sectors, these moves threaten all Canadians, yet, to date, public response has been muted. Why are these moves such a threat?
Labour is at the centre of all progressive politics
"Labour is at the centre of all progressive politics," Alberta Federation of Labour President Gil McGowan reminded in an interview following SGN's weekend conference on labour's image. "Labour is powerful. That's the reason they've targeted us, they've put the bullseye on us because they recognize we have power at the bargaining table, we have power in our communities, we have political power, and that power can be used against them. They want to undermine that power. They want to take apart civil society so they can change Canada."
Rand has been the National Citizen's Coalition's target since it was formed, under Harper and other CEOs. Conservative activists recognized then as now that unions have a regular source of income through member dues, unlike any other progressive organizations. And unions use their influence and theie money to support and promote a range of progressive causes and activists. SGNews is one of a long list of progressive projects supported very significantly by the labour movement.
Without public services, public service workers, union members, Rand, and dues — and a great many progressive projects, and the advocates who work for them, are at risk.
Since the 1980s under Reagan, US Republicans have worked to "de-fund the Left," going after advocacy groups, university student councils, progressive lawyers and legal clinics, charities, and, of course, unions.
The Harperites understand the importance of this directive better than any conservatives in Canada before them. When they had a minority government, they worked systematically to eliminate funding for any of the issues they don't like, such as feminism, environment, and social justice. Now they have a majority, they are gunning for big game — unions — and only widespread public outrage can stop them.
At SGN's workshop, speakers from the world of advertising discussed the art and science of branding and images and showed how unions could apply their knowledge through careful research and by focussing their creative efforts . The group heard that over the years, the union image has been steadily corroded by attacks that often go unanswered from right-wing interests.
"We're facing a government that's more like the Tea Party Right," said McGowan. They have a political plan, they have a communications plan, and they're targeting us. If we're going to be successful in fighting back, we have to have conversations like we had today... We have an obligation to get our act together, protect the labour movement, and also, in doing so, protect broader civil society," McGowan told us.
Conference participant David Climenhaga, of the United Nurses of Alberta (UNA), has similar concerns. "We need to respond instantly to the barrage of anti-union propoganda that we're hearing from organizations that have been set up and intelligently run in order to attack not just unions but progressive policies and the rights of working people," he told Straight Goods News. "All the time, we cede the room to them by letting them make powerful statements that are simply based on unsound research, politically motivated research, and that are in many cases outright false. They become the truth because we don't bother speaking back to them."
As a result of the constant barrage, union support has slipped and needs to be bolstered. Janice Peterson, another workshop participant from the United Nurses of Alberta (UNA), told Straight Goods News unions need to face some troubling realities. "Not only do we have a problem with public image, but we also have a huge problem with our own members. We not only have to sell ourselves to the public, we have to sell ourselves to our own members."
It's not too late for the labour movement to rebuild its image, was the message of speaker after speaker at SGN's workshop. Doing so, however, will require hard work, open minds, a lot of listening and research, and making key people in every organization responsible for a focus on improving the reputation and image of their union and unions in general.
"I loved Terry O'Reilly's presentation on rebuilding our message and repositioning ourselves," Francine Filion, of the Canadian Teachers' Federation said. "It can be done. There is a solution."
There has to be a solution, because without strong unions, every progressive cause will be hobbled.
Straight Goods News, Monday Sept 24 2012
Byline: Isa Theilheimer