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  • authored by Members for Democracy
  • published Sat, Dec 11, 2004

Real Canadian Superstores: The UFCW's Low Wage Wasteland

Part 3: Weasel-Words To Live By

Is the UFCW trying to organize Canadian Wal-Mart workers because it genuinely wants to improve their working lives or are its efforts merely good cover for a clandestine campaign to make a favoured employer more profitable? Actions provide the best insight into motives. In this four part series we take an indepth look at what the UFCW has done for its # 1 brand. You decide what's really going on here.

Belonging to a union isn't just about being able to use your collective power to get better wages and benefits. It's also about negotiating restrictions on management's ability to engage in unfair management practices like:

  • Awarding jobs, shifts and hours based on favouritism;
  • Firing workers because they just won't kiss ass;
  • Forcing workers to do other jobs - including managers' jobs - without any extra pay;
  • Screwing around with workers' days and hours of work;
  • Encouraging workers to quit after only a short stint - and so keeping the majority of the workforce at poverty level entry rates of pay - because there's no hope of better pay, better hours or a better working life.

Without specific restrictions on what management can't do, management can do pretty much whatever it wants. The way that the legal scheme governing labour-management relations in Canada and the US works is that management has the right to screw you around unless your union negotiates restrictions on that right.

Many unions negotiate provisions into their collective agreements that specify the rules for important aspects of workplace life like hiring, promotions, scheduling, hours of work, changes in duties, opportunities to do higher paying jobs as well as rules that restrict management's ability to fire workers for anything other than "just cause" and that provide workers with an effective complaint procedure if they believe that they've been jerked around. Most collective agreements contain all kinds of restrictions on management's right to jerk workers around and in each successive round of negotiations unions seek to tighten those up and to add new restrictions as managers find new ways to jerk around. That's what a lot of unions do. Then there's the UFCW.

Over the past decade the UFCW has bargained concessions that have not only ratchetted down wages and benefits but have broken new ground in the universe of management-friendly clauses (collective agreement provisions that give management more rather than less flexibility to jerk workers around). Their agreements are loaded with weasel words and agreed upon statements that make management's right to jerk workers around a principle to be upheld and honoured. Here's a fine example of from a 5-year collective agreement (1998 - 2004) between Turner Distribution Systems Ltd. and UFCW, Local 777 - the special local that set up the race for the bottom in the Canadian retail food industry.

The parties to this Agreement pledge to work towards the greatest possible degree of consultation and cooperation believing that the following concepts provide a fundamental framework for improved labour-management relations:

  • the industrial enterprise is an economically characterized work community of capital investors and workers under the leadership of a management;
  • the economic character springs from a continuous striving toward efficient use of resources, energy and environment, and in the adequate development of research, production and marketing;
  • the enterprise requires authority relationships under a strong central leadership or management;
  • a strong management does not discourage cooperation but stimulates it, recognizing that while management without labour can do nothing, labour without management cannot survive.

The beauty of this clause is that it acknowledges the supremacy of management in the labour-management relationship and establishes the union as an appendage of the corporation. Now there's something I'd want to pay union dues for!

But that was 1998 and since then the UFCW has been diligently striving for even more impressive sell-outs. The secret deal the President's Choice Union cut with Loblaw Companies in the summer of 2003 for the hugely profitable Canadian retailer's Real Canadian Superstores is a great devolutionary leap for the UFCW - one that will result in a unionized retailer's workers earning lower wages than their counterparts at non-union retailers like Wal-Mart. Oh we know it's only for a few decades - until the whole retail industry is organized by the hapless UFCW. Then things will be better. Maybe they will but only because they can hardly get much worse.

In our earlier segments, we took a look at the appalling wages and inaccessible benefits that the UFCW mandarins bargained in the backroom for their new RCSS members. But the crappy wages and inaccessible benefits are only the beginning of life in Canada's new retail wasteland. The RCSS deal contains some real gems when it comes to weasel-word-laden management-friendly contract language. It's an agreement that condones and even encourages the exploitation of part-timers and the part-timers who are going to work in the RCSS department store merchandise section are the most exploitable of 'em all.

Bad enough that they start at minimum wage and can stay there up to two years but under the RCSS deal, part-timers can be exploited in ways that might even make a non-union retailer blush:

Under the RCSS deal, part-time workers are limited to 24 hours per week. They have no guarantees of hours of work and, even though they are expected to make themselves available for work at certain times of the week, there is no obligation on management to call them in.

If RCSS managers need to schedule more hours, there's nothing that compels them to give those hours to existing part-timers. They can hire more part-timers (remember: two 12 hour a week part-timers are better for the company and the union than one 24 hour a week part-timer). In fact, it's recognized that the company can do whatever it wants with those hours:

"Additional hours that become available due to other staff being away or due to daily increases in business can at the employer's discretion be given to one employee or more employees."

"At the employer's discretion" means that the boss can do whatever he wants to whomever he wants. If you're working 12 hours a week and want more hours, there's no obligation on the company to give you any extra hours. They can hire more 12 hour a week part-timers for the extra hours. You won't be around long enough to complain and even if you do - there's nothing your union can do about it.

Additional part-timers can be hired even if that means that the hours of existing part-timers will be reduced. Letter of Understanding #41 states that the "employer will not hire part-time employees with the explicit intent to reduce the hours of existing part-time employees within a department".

What that means is that unless the union catches some company guys on video saying, "Hey you guys, I've got a great idea... let's hire a few more part timers and cut all the existing part timers' hours", they haven't got a hope in hell of proving the company's "explicit intent". So...the company can do whatever the hell it wants.

DSTM (department store merchandise) part-timers can be temporarily assigned to work in higher paying classifications (like department manager, assistant department manager, receiver and analyst) for up to 3 days without any extra pay. If they're assigned for 3 days or more they get a whopping $1.00 per hour extra. Check that out - $8.15 per hour to do the manager's job, after 3 days.

DSTM part-timers can be scheduled 40 hours per week up to 8 weeks while the company deals with staff shortages and continue to be called part-time. Extensions of the 8 weeks are possible and "won't be unreasonably denied by the union". That means that the not only can't the union complain about part-timers working full-time for extended periods of time, it must go along with the practice or prove that it isn't being unreasonable in saying "no more".

Best of all, DSTM part-timers must work 2000 hours (that's anywhere up to 3 years depending on their hours) before applying for a transfer outside of the DSTM department. There's no way out, except to quit."

It's hard to see just what it is that Loblaw's RCSS managers can't do with their part-time workers that managers at Wal-Mart or other non-union retailers can't do. Indeed, when we check out the language that deals with union work in the RCSS, it's pretty clear that managers can do pretty much whatever they want including the part-timers' jobs.

The RCSS deal permits a much larger number of excluded (management) jobs than the Loblaws agreement (which was gutted for the RCSS stores) allowed and it doesn't prohibit managers from doing union work. To understand the great flexibility this allows the company, it's helpful to know why unions (well, most unions) insist on tight restrictions on the ability of managers to do union work.

Calling workers "manager" is a popular human resources management method. In addition to their "management work" (supervising other workers and doing various administrative tasks), they can and often are put to work on the floor doing the same things as their staff. Some "managers" spend most of their time doing the same work as their staff and that works out well for the company.

Managers are exempt from the overtime provisions of employment standards legislation so companies can work them as long as you want and never have to pay them overtime. They can also avoid hiring additional workers by having managers put in extra hours, come in on their days off and so on.

Unions have traditionally bargained restrictions on the extent to which managers can do union work. A lot of contracts prohibit the practice completely while others allow it only for purposes of training or in emergencies or where new equipment is being introduced.

Unions have also tried to limit the number of management positions in a workplace by challenging the excluded status of managers who spend most of their time doing bargaining unit work ("if they're doing our work, put them in the bargaining unit").

That's just not the case under the RCSS deal.

Under the old "ungutted" Loblaws agreement, management positions were restricted to: A store manager, an assistant store manager, a general merchandise manager, a photo lab technician, a pharmacist and persons above these ranks.

Under the RCSS deal, the ranks of the excluded have been expanded to include 3 assistant store managers, 12 department managers and up to 8 assistant DSTM managers.

This expansion provides the company with a way to keep the number of bargaining unit (union) jobs it needs to a minimum. If you're up to your ass in managers, how many bargaining unit employees are you going to need? Only the very na´ve would assume that these managers will not be doing union work.

There's nothing in the RCSS deal prohibiting these managers from doing bargaining unit work. There's only a clause that says they won't do work in other departments and providing for a $100.00 fine payable to the union in case they're caught doing it. What's really good about that is that the company can have its managers work wherever it wants. It runs a small risk (who's going to blow the whistle - the other managers?) of a puny fine if it gets caught and the union pockets the puny fine. Both the employer and the union win. One gets to break the rules while the other gets paid when the rules are broken. Now that's what you call labour-management cooperation at its finest!

With a deal like the RCSS agreement, who needs a union? The RCSS workers could sure use one. Too bad they have the UFCW instead.

Up next: There Were Three in the Bed: Why the UFCW rolled over, and over, and over, for Loblaws Real Canadian Superstores.

Wasteland Part 1
Wasteland Part 2

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