From owner-labor-l@YORKU.CA Sun Nov 18 14:47:38 2001
Date: Sun, 18 Nov 2001 12:33:20 -0800
Sender: Forum on Labor in the Global Economy <LABOR-L@YORKU.CA>
From: Cindi Foreman <willows@CYBERBEACH.NET>
Organization: CUPW Local 612
Subject: Steel union election heats up

Steel union election heats up

By Peter Van Harten, The Hamilton Spectator, [18 November 2001]

In different times, labour activist Peter Leibovitch might have had a bigger cheering section for his uphill race to lead steelworker trade unionists in Ontario and the Maritimes. Instead, the union leader from Stelco's Lake Erie plant in Nanticoke has been snubbed by the top brass of 4,000-strong Local 1005 at Stelco's Hilton Works in Hamilton.

Leibovitch cut his activism teeth at the union's flagship Local 1005 in the early 1980s before layoffs and a job hunt took the mechanic down the road to the steel company's new Lake Erie plant.

But in the election contest on Nov. 20 for District 6 director of the United Steelworkers of America, the leadership of 1005 is actively campaigning for Leibovitch's opponent, Wayne Fraser, from Sudbury and Inco's nickel mines.

Fraser is a staff officer and assistant to retiring director Harry Hynd and is the betting favourite in the race. He's the establishment candidate on a slate endorsed by union headquarters in Toronto and Pittsburgh.

Leibovitch is campaigning as the anti-establishment candidate—as a rank-and-file, shop-floor champion promising greater democracy and autonomy for the union's locals.

I want the membership to have a choice on who the leaders are going to be in this union, says Leibovitch. I've spent my entire life in the union as an elected leader and not as an appointed staffer.

Union leadership just becomes self-fulfilling and out of touch with its members when positions are handed off from one salaried officer to the next, he says.

In past years, leaders of large union locals such as 1005 in Hamilton liked nothing better than to thumb their noses at their salaried leaders and to support dissident candidates.

The anti-establishment feeling was strong enough in the 1980 election that rank-and-file dissident David Patterson even toppled district director Stu Cooke.

But times are different now:

Leibovitch announced his candidacy in January.

He might have anticipated that his union leadership credentials in the Hamilton-area, basic steel industry could surmount those handicaps and win him the endorsement and loyalty of 1005.

But that would sell short Fraser who has strong rank-and-file credentials of his own and who started working at Inco as a labourer/electrician at the age of 19.

Didn't know much about the union other than that my dad worked for the company and every three years we found ourselves on the picketline, Fraser says.

He was appointed as assistant to the director in February about the same time he announced his candidacy.

He's not a union technocrat who went from university to a union staff job and he can't be scorned for never having gotten his hands dirty.

Fraser became active in the union in the 1970s as a steward and held other shop-floor and elected positions before being hired on steelworker union staff in 1986.

Five years later Fraser became union area co-ordinator for north-east Ontario after having been the steelworker supervisor for Sudbury.

And there is no lack of democracy in the steelworkers union, Fraser says.

The union is one of the few that elects its top leaders, not at conventions, but by referendum vote of workers at plant gates and union halls, he says.

In 1986 when Fraser was hired on by the union, Leibovitch was hired by Stelco at Nanticoke and became the union's chief union steward for plant tradesmen.

Two years later Leibovitch was union president of Local 8782 at Nanticoke and he's served three terms as president.

Most recently he ran for vice-president so that he'd have more time for other union activities away from the 1,000 member local, he says.

I've been elected every time in the positions I ran for, he says. I've been able to satisfy the members and been re-elected every time after negotiations with Stelco, he says.

It's after contract negotiations that union members are most likely to punish elected officials who fail to get a good deal or lead workers in a disastrous strike.

Leibovitch led the strike at Nanticoke in 1990 which is pointed to as the breaking point between Local 1005 and Local 8782 and the start of ongoing rivalry between the two.

In the strikes at both plants, Local 1005 broke away from the chain-wide bargaining of the past and settled first.

The Nanticoke local remained on strike longer and its local leaders have been bragging ever since they are now the wage pattern setters for Canada's steel industry.

It's an uphill battle for him, says Leibovitch because the union's staff officers keep a tight grip on top leadership positions being contested in the elections across North America this month.

I think there is only one person that's running who is not a staff rep and that's me, he says.

Leibovitch has taken five weeks of leave from the Stelco plant to run and campaign at plant gates and halls across Ontario and the Maritimes. Quebec members are in a separate district.

It's difficult for someone like me to run, he says. You need a lot of money and support and everything I'm doing, I'm doing on my own time, he says.

The election is actually two campaigns. First Leibovitch had to get 15 union locals to endorse him to get on the ballot for the Nov. 20 election.

He ran up a total of 40 locals in the nomination race before stopping to conserve funds, he says.

Supporters for Fraser say their candidate got the backing of 89 per cent of the union's locals and won the endorsement of 26 locals in the Hamilton area, including Local 1005 at Stelco, to Leibovitch's nine.

Warren Smith, the president of Local 1005, says Leibovitch probably expected their support and says in past years the local gravitate to the anti-administration candidates.

But for him it was strictly a question of leadership and not politics and Fraser is the better candidate, Smith says.

Leibovitch says he was disappointed but not surprised. Nothing surprises me in the politics of the steelworkers. It's the votes from workers at Hilton Works that will count Nov. 20, he says.

I respect the democratic process, but I'm sure the membership of 1005 has different opinions (than its leaders), he says. The membership will decide and anyone looking at it will see that my candidacy and election will help their dealings with Stelco.

Leibovitch has taken part in five serious sets of negotiations with Stelco and knows how the company operates, he says.

And with the current restructuring in the steel industry in Canada and U.S., his leadership will be even more important.

It's time, he says, to put any rivalry between 1005 and the Nanticoke Local 8782 aside and look to the future of Stelco and its plants.

Anybody who tries to divide the two memberships is playing with the future and lives of all steelworkers, he says. It's one thing to decide who is the best, but it's another to play that card and drive divisions between the two memberships.

In his campaign for director, Fraser, says he is the candidate who can make the biggest difference for 1005 and Hamilton-area steelworkers because of his bargaining experience.

Fraser is promising an increased focus on collective bargaining and more resources for locals in his campaign and says he will get involved in Stelco bargaining.

I think 1005 looks at my experience and says we will need someone at the collective bargaining table and who would we rather have, he says. They will base their decision on that.

In Sudbury there used to be a love-hate relationship between the union and Inco, but the giant nickel company was tamed and they now work together, Fraser says.

Stelco definitely needs an education on how to do business with the steelworkers union, he says.

In Sudbury, layoffs have been just as brutal but the union and Inco now work together so that workers get the benefits of cost-cutting measures and productivity increases at the bargaining table.

Stelco needs to recognize the role of the union in its operations and the need to work together to benefit both parties and the bottom line, he says.

I don't see that yet at Stelco; the union puts out an olive branch and it is cut off at its roots, Fraser says.

The company and union need to press governments jointly for tough anti-dumping measures and trade laws in the current steel crisis, Fraser says.

We have to work together and can't be fighting, says Fraser who is also campaigning during vacation and off-hours from his union job.

Company-union co-operation is already happening in the U.S. and anti-dumping remedies there will result in more foreign steel diverted and dumped into Canada if there is no protection here, he says.

Our politicians are just sitting on their asses in Canada, he says.

The government acted to help the airline industry after Sept. 11 but has known about the steel crisis and ignored the need for tougher legislation and financial support, he says.

Although carrying the stamp of approval from the steelworkers' brass in Toronto and Pittsburgh, Fraser is not above courting a degree of anti-establishment sentiment of his own.

Fraser says he contemplated taking a run in the 1997 race at the district director who has been uncontested in the past two elections.

No disrespect to Harry but I thought the union needed some fundamental changes and moving forward, he says.

Fraser says he became ill and had to change his mind but has gotten on well with the district director since being appointed his assistant in February of this year.