From LABOR-L@YORKU.CA Sun Sep 2 05:56:08 2001
Date: Sat, 1 Sep 2001 12:48:28 -0700
Sender: Forum on Labor in the Global Economy <LABOR-L@YORKU.CA>
From: radtimes <resist@BEST.COM>
Subject: Nation rife with labour strife

Nation rife with labour strife: As Labour Day nears, workers are united in their discontent

By Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press The Halifax Herald, Friday 31 August 2001

Across the country, the disgruntled rumblings of unhappy workers have been keeping picket captains, labour negotiators and politicians hopping.

From nurses in British Columbia to municipal workers in Cape Breton, unionized employees have been thumping bargaining tables or pounding the sidewalks in recent weeks in a seemingly never-ending series of unrelated labour disputes.

But as workers prepared to march in new-found solidarity this Labour Day weekend, there was a common thread of frustration tying together everyone from federal coast guard workers to Alberta teachers and the myriad of employees whose disputes don't make the news.

Workers were promised that if they made sacrifices, it would pay off in the long run, says Buzz Hargrove, president of the powerful Canadian Auto Workers Union.

They're learning it's paying dividends for the wealthy and the powerful and corporate elite but it's not paying dividends for working people.

Amid the hangover of the nasty recession of the early 1990s that ended the free-spending bubble of the 1980s, workers were squeezed by the threat of globalization, intense competition and high unemployment.

But many of them have struggled to make any gains despite the lengthy economic boom of recent years and anger is building, says Wayne Lewchuk, a labour studies professor at McMaster University in Hamilton.

We're emerging from a period when labour was uncertain about what it should do to now a period when they're just fed up, says Lewchuk.

Seattle, Quebec are more examples of this, he says in reference to the recent mass protests against globalization and free trade.

Exacerbating the situation in Canada is a slowing economy and tight-fisted governments intent on lowering barriers to job creation and investment, suggesting the unrest is far from over.

If you couldn't get any money in good times, then you're going to have a hell of a time telling them, 'Sorry, it's too late now,' says Hargrove.

People are not buying the logic any longer.

Among the most visible strife has been that of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, whose 77,000 members—literally from coast to coast—adopted a series of short-term strikes to push for more cash.

What especially rankles the federal public servants is that their political masters recently gave themselves 20 per cent increases—42 per cent for the prime minister—while trying to hold the line on front-line wages in the name of fiscal responsibility.

Similarly, Alberta's 30,000 teachers are threatening a mass strike, saying the Ralph Klein government is holding back on salaries while ignoring the austerity sermon itself. It's a similar story in Ontario, where politicians are looking forward to a 25 per cent increase after the next election while workers are being told to expect no more than two or three per cent raises.

But beyond the perennial battles over money, issues such as workload and health and safety concerns are muddying the already troubled labour waters, analysts say.

Two weeks ago, unionized drivers in Cape Breton left their buses after a fellow driver was suspended for refusing to take the wheel because he was denied a lunch break.

By the time it was settled four days later, 300 outside workers had halted everything from garbage collection to major junior hockey.

Labour leaders say the climate of deregulation is making matters worse.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in Canada's most populous province, where Mike Harris's Conservative government has dismantled labour protections piece by piece, says Wayne Samuelson, of the Ontario Federation of Labour.

The government has gutted the Employment Standards Act, which, among other things, limits hours on the job, and has weakened safety rules at a time sickness in the workplace is on the increase, Samuelson says.

As a result, all of those issues start to pile up on bargaining tables.

The result: tougher negotiations and more conflict.

In an effort toward putting a lid on the unrest in its schools, the recently elected Liberal government in British Columbia is designating education an essential service, the only province to do that.

It's just another move to tilt the balance of bargaining in favour of the employer, said Barry O'Neill, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees in B.C.

However, the attempt could backfire by creating the kind of unrest for which the province was known in the early 1980s and make it unattractive to new investment, O'Neill said.

Labour leaders say the shared sense of grievance among workers is helping pull private- and public-sector unions closer together and that the labour movement is more united now than a year ago.

For one thing, the nasty spat that was still raging last Labour Day after the CAW was expelled from the Canadian Labour Congress and affiliated federations over a raiding dispute has been largely settled and the powerful union is returning to the fold.

There's a sense of renewed activism, with an emphasis on educating workers in individual workplaces about their rights, says the OFL's Samuelson.

It's more than you see.

But Lewchuk says divisions run deep over how best to make gains in a hostile environment.

Options such as more or fewer street protests and reforming or cutting ties to the New Democratic Party have yet to be resolved, he says.

Judy Darcy, head of the half-million-strong Canadian Union of Public Employees, acknowledges the problem in her Labour Day message to the rank and file.

We need to find new ways to co-operate amongst unions to organize new members and collectively take on common causes, says Darcy.

We (also) need to reach out to involve more youth, First Nations peoples, workers of colour and the poor.

One way to do that and to reach people in smaller workplaces is to bargain by sector, as is more common in Quebec, observers say.

Settlements then apply to everyone in that sector, whether they are officially union members or not.

In the interim, says Hargrove, there's a fury building among workers who feel cruelly cheated by a boom that's passed them by.

People are going to fight. That's what you're seeing now.