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Words on Work

A Fresh Start and a Look Back

| Chantelle Spicer | Welcome to Words on Work! Through this column, I invite our readership to consider the workforce and ourselves as workers in new ways.

There have been significant changes in the workforce within the last year, 10 years, 40 years at both Canadian and global scales, yet we still, generally, consider work with the same expectations that our parents did. We still ask each other and ourselves “What do you want to do with your life? With your degree?” as though many of us will follow a distinct  career path following graduation. Many still expect their labour to support their bills and lifestyles – to make a living – despite recognition of the growing numbers of the working poor. Many of us continue to hold fast to the rigorous work ethic adopted from previous generations – a work ethic that has lent itself to the never-ending work day and spiralling exploitation of workers.

We are students for a reason – to make ourselves more employable in better jobs (which itself is a massive shift from former understandings and values of education, but that’s a different article). As students, we are taught to critically examine the world around us, so let us see how, together we can explore the idea of work.

Given that this is the last day of 2018, I want to start by looking back over the past year’s labour trends and headlines – to set the stage we can move forward from together – looking specifically at Canada (which are often widely under-reported in media), but with the understanding there is a global workforce out there experiencing similar trends.

Divisions within Canadian labour unions

Starting off the year in labour unions, the Canadian Labour Congress was divided when UNIFOR, the country’s largest private-sector union, decided to exit the Congress in January, claiming it was due to concerns surrounding American-based unions and their control of Canadian workers. However, the Congress has openly accused UNIFOR of exiting the national organisation with the intent to raid other unions of their membership, thereby collecting more dues from workers.

Notice to Members from UNIFOR national President.

Overall, this speaks to a lot of issues within unions in general, whether they be reality or perceptions – many members of unions are dissatisfied with the representation and protections offered or issues with bureaucratic and limiting structures. There are many types of unions that exist in Canada (and the world) – from those that readily take direct action to improve conditions for workers to those that prohibit direct action in their bylaws, those who take great measure to educate and mobilize their membership at all times or those that are more reactionary as issues arise. The foundation of every labour union should always be fighting for the rights of their workers, whatever that might look like for each trade. The division between the Congress and UNIFOR only continues to build distrust of unions among workers at a time when unionization rates are falling, while we need to be uniting and educating workers.

Public response and perception of division between the Congress and UNIFOR from Larry Savage, Chair of the department of labour studies at Brock University, who tweeted that Unifor’s decision to leave the
CLC “will definitely shake things up in the Canadian labour movement.”

Pitting workers against workers

It’s hard to forget the very public disagreements between the BC and Alberta NDP governments in the start of 2018. In February and March of this year, frictions surrounding the Kinder-Morgan pipeline construction captured headlines when the BC government stated it would under no circumstances allow the pipeline to reach the coast. Alberta NDP retaliated stating it would cut off oil to the province, as well as restricting imports of wines produced in British Columbia.

The Calgary World Herald saw through the public perceptions and political mess of the feud and identified how this would impact the 2,000 workers already on the project. The Herald stated many workers were concerned about feeding their families or not being able to pay their mortgages due to the disputes. There were also discussions in various Alberta media outlets (and subsequent comment sections) surrounding the fact that many workers at wineries in British Columbia were transient workers and not as valuable to a stable economy (which is wrong on so many levels…). Workers in British Columbia in opposition to the pipeline also threw blows at pipeline and oil industry workers (and their defence of their work), often stating these workers were anti-environment and entitled.

This pitting of workers against workers does nothing but shift the conversation away from who actually makes the decisions, the rules, and the profits while further alienating workers from each other. This fragments the our power to make real change for the environment and how we work when we should be coming together in solidarity as exploited workers.

BC Community Benefit Agreements

The announcement of community benefits agreements (CBAs) introduced by the BC government in July was one of the province’s most reported labour issues of 2018. The agreements will place emphasis on local union-based hiring for public infrastructure projects, with emphasis on and expectations for improving employment opportunities for women and Indigenous workers. The agreements have received some criticism from those in the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association of BC (ICBA) who disagree with workers only being able to be sourced from the BC Building Trades (BCBT) unions, with President Chris Gardner stating “freezing out 85% of these workers doesn’t make sense, will increase cost to taxpayers and affects everything from completion to safety to schedule of the project.” However, this organisation, as a coalition of developers stands to continue benefiting from being able to exploit workers.

Community Benefit Agreements could mean much improvement for apprenticeship programs and employment opportunities for women, Indigenous workers, people with disabilities.

In fact, this statistical claim is very misleading to the public, as it does not account for the difference between residential and non-residential workers. As these CBAs are for public works projects only non-residential workers are impacted. BCBT unions represents 40,000 (or 58% of) non-residential workers. In the coming years, we can analyze how these CBAs benefit BC workers, specifically rural workers, as well as see what further developments happen in supporting trades training and apprenticeships.

Economists report looming labour shortage that may last a decade.

The “baby boomer” generation created a bubble within the workforce as they came of age in the 1960s – one that is starting to pop as workers retire. This will require many small and mid-sized companies, particularly those in rural areas, to adapt to a workforce that is changing in many ways. The shortage was most acute with companies with from 10 to 99 employees, where more than half of respondents indicated it was “difficult to hire” new workers. In the long run this may be a benefit for young workers, as many companies are realizing they need to offer higher wages and better benefits to attract and keep their workers. This would be much needed considering the increased student debt many young workers are facing, rising cost of living, and slow wage growth over previous years. On the other hand, it may lead to increased automation or global relocation of the industry in some fields. Government reactions to this report should be pretty interesting over the coming year in terms of students and young workers, as much could be done to increase adult skills training and improved access to education.

Pay equity legislation tabled to protect federal employees

Though limited in scope – it only covers federally regulated employers with 10 or more workers in the federal public service, parliamentary workplaces, and the offices of the prime minister and other ministers, though some private sector workers fall under this – it is certainly an acknowledgement of a pay equity issue that has been fought against since women first entered the workforce in the 1940s. Furthermore, it counters the myth that women have already achieved equality within our society simply by being in the workforce.

The Act requires that all employers establish an equity plan in the coming 3 years, while also having sections that address poverty reduction generally. It also establishes the Department  for Women and Gender Equality, which will replace existing Status of Women Canada. According to 2017 statistics in Canada, for every dollar a man earned, a woman earned 88.5 cents on the dollar as measured in hourly wages for full-time workers. When comparing overall earnings on an annual basis, women earned even less – just 69 cents for every dollar earned by men.

The Canadian Government stripped Canada Post workers of their constitutional rights through back-to work legislation. (stay tuned for lots more consideration of the year that as 2018 for Canada Post workers!)

This is a lot to sum up in a blurb, but here goes….Following months of union negotiations, CPUW workers began nation-wide rotating strikes on October 22 as action against failures of the employer (Canada Post) to adequately address increasing on-the-job injuries, a significant wage gap between rural and urban workers (which significantly affects women workers, who make up the bulk of rural workers (this greatly contributes to gender pay inequity across the country), and the lack of hiring full-time employees to alleviate the pressures and demands faced by existing workers.

Unions, activists and students gather to show support for CUPW in Ottawa and Gatineau

The federal Liberals introduced the back-to-work legislation on November 23, citing the need for holiday packages to be delivered on time, as well as social assistance cheques in the face of the alleged growing backlog of packages. According to labour lawyer Paul Cavalluzzo, the government’s interference in collective bargaining through the back-to-work legislation was really about giving Canada Post management the upper-hand to force the union into accepting a weaker deal, stating:

“Whereas the Union was forced to make significant concessions in an effort to reach an agreement and avoid the punitive legislation, the Corporation was able to escalate its demands and seek even greater concessions than it had in the months of negotiations preceding the legislation.”

These are but a few stories of the way that labour is changing…but these are just the headlines. As current and future workers, we live these headlines…they are personal to us, our friends, families, and colleagues. I hope to use this column to showcase the realities of work and workers both in Canada and abroad, as well as highlight stories from the many folks who are fighting to change that. Welcome!

In Solidarity.