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  • authored by news
  • published Sat, Sep 7, 2002

Open Letter to CLC President from a worker

A letter to the President of the Canadian Labour Congress from a Canadian worker and union member, in a time of crisis.

An Open Letter to the President of the Canadian Labour Congress

September 06, 2002
Ken Georgetti
President, Canadian Labour Congress

Dear Mr. Georgetti,

In a document from the 23rd Constitutional Convention titled 'Labour's Political Activism', is this:

Paragraph 2, 'Just as the political status quo never matched the needs and expectations of workers and their unions, so too labour's political activism never rested on the belief that its status quo was fully adequate. It is no different today as we search for ways and means to better represent the interests of our membership.'

Paragraph 4, 'Labour's first duty, above all else, is to represent workers at the workplace. Good collective agreements are the foundation upon which working people achieve a better life for themselves and their families.'

As a union member for over 26 years I concur and congratulate the CLC for reminding all of us what is at stake, what a unions purpose is, and the sacrifice our predecessors made to get this far. Unionism is truly the voice for working people. In this age of globalization and the race to the bottom this voice needs to strong and united.

But what will be the workers fate if unions start to act against one another in the interests of accumulating members? Who will be their voice when unions abandon their 'first duty' and instead engage in the war to accumulate members. Do they then not take on the characteristics of their nemesis? When the foundation of 'good collective agreements' is eroded by this dynamic then what is unionism's purpose? I suggest to you that this dynamic is one you will have to address sooner or later and that it is currently in question by thousands of union members.

The issues the CLC raise in this document are valid and pressing. Political activism has always been a valid and needed part of any democratic process. How this applies to the current state of unionism is not mentioned in the article. It seems to me that political activism within the union movement is now a relevant and important aspect in pursuing your stated goals. Unionism of today seems to mandate that we dare not criticize lest a weakness be displayed, a lack of solidarity. This form of change is somehow painted as radicalism or agitation. The truth is that it is fundamental to meeting the ever changing and fast paced challenges that labour is confronted with.

From the same convention is this from a document titled 'Declaration of Solidarity and Human Rights':

Paragraph 1, 'Unity and solidarity are fundamental to the strength of the labour movement. Improvements to the standard of living, working conditions and quality of life and collective rights for working people achieved through collective action.' Certainly these things flow from adherence to the 'first duty' mentioned above. Quality collective agreements are what unionism is all about.

Paragraph 11, 'The unity of working people is the only thing that stands in the way of the corporate agenda that seeks to increase profit at any cost- that seeks to privatize public services, lower wages, undermine pay and employment equity measures, eliminate environmental protection, and manipulate the rules of trade.'

This letter addresses the shift in unionism from the 'first duty' of unionism to what is commonly called 'biz unionism' or the desire to maximize dues collection revenue, to accumulate as many members as possible. If that is the direction that unionism chooses then how can anyone really expect 'unity of the working people'?

I believe that the actions and inaction of the UFCW and the RWU unions warrant some scrutiny in this regard. Are they adhering to the 'first duty' you describe or to the dynamic I describe?

We have had some time to assess the impact of the 777 local and the flood of 'bottom heavy' two tier agreements that followed. It comes as no surprise to anyone that their impact has been decidedly negative for both senior members and those just entering the workforce. Where is solidarity when we watch unionism create the context for our diminished quality of life? Does it need to get any more obvious for you that unions have morphed into a dues collection business?

If the answer to that question is yes then please look at the collective agreement the RWU signed with Baker/EV Logistics, the newly built facility that is slated to take over our work. This collective agreement specifically states that there will never be more than 35% of the workforce as full time. It states that the other 65% will have no benefits or sick time. (Article 11.10 on page 30) The wage structure is three tiered creating further divisions between the workers. For those who begin employment after 1999, the starting wage is $10/hr. In 2009, the last year of the agreement, the starting wage is still $10/hr. There are some huge assumptions about inflation built in there. No matter how many hours a part time employee puts in, the most he or she can ever make is $13.50/hr. Will this provide for the healthy ideals your organization espouses, the '…foundation upon which working people achieve a better life for themselves and their families'?

Article 24-Duration, reads as follows: '24.01 This Agreement shall be effective from May 5, 1999 to and including November 30, 2009 and thereafter from year to year unless notice in writing is given, by either party, of the desire to cancel, change or amend any of the provisions contained herein, within four (4) months immediately preceding the date of expiry of the Agreement. Notwithstanding the foregoing, should the major customer terminate its 'open book' contract with the employer after November 30, 2000 this Agreement will be open for full negotiation.'

Those of us that have been a part of unionism for many years are dismayed by such language. It runs directly counter to the purpose of unionism and certainly the CLC ideals quoted above. How can a party that is enjoying all the labour relations benefits of being considered a 'customer' have more power over a Collective Agreement than the employer and its workers? The 'customer' gets to cancel at any time but the employer and the workers have to wait until 2009??? A $10/hr start rate that does not change for 10 years???

So you are correct in pointing out that '… so too labour's political activism never rested on the belief that its status quo was fully adequate.' Is it not then intrinsic to political activism that this statement also applies to the union movement itself? Is political activism within the union membership accorded the same dignity or is it radical trouble makers? When the kind of shift I describe above becomes endemic to unionism and threatens the very 'unity of the working people' and the 'foundation' of good collective agreements, is it not reasonable to expect some comment and direction from the CLC regarding this dynamic?

From 'Profit Over People' by Noam Chomsky, comes this paragraph. It is as applicable to government politics as it is to union politics: 'That people must submit is taken for granted pretty much across the spectrum. In a democracy, the governed have the right to consent, but nothing more than that. In the terminology of modern progressive thought, the population may be 'spectators,' but not 'participants,' apart from occasional choices among leaders representing authentic power. That is the political arena. The general population must be excluded entirely from the economic arena, where what happens in the society is largely determined.'

Conventions, speeches, and glad-handing are fine if there is substance to the aims they claim to support. This dispute and the context in which it is occurring should be of great concern to the CLC for the singular reason that they exhibit a pathetic disregard for the 'first duty' you describe. I am not suggesting that you intervene in any way not mandated by your position, only that it may bear some study for the reasons stated herein. When the race to the bottom mentality becomes the union mentality when will the CLC step in?

The 777 collective agreement created a flood of concessionary collective agreements under dubious circumstances. Little was heard from the big wigs of unionism although the consequences were and have been predictable. Overwaitea Food Group immediately abandoned its 'investment in human capital' strategy in favour of this 'race to the bottom' agenda. The distribution center, one of the most efficient in North America was broken up. In the summer of ‘97 the Overwaitea Food Group and UFCW Local 1518 signed a concessionary agreement reflecting the 777 supposed advantages. This furthered the divisions within the UFCW and solidarity suffered predictably. Now the warehouse is slated for closure under circumstances that are highly questionable. Those members have been all but abandoned by their union. In the spring of next year OFG retail faces further assaults on its senior members by virtue of the voting blocks that favour junior members interests, a most predictable consequence.

The RWU Collective Agreement has taken this union versus union race to the bottom mentality to a new level. Will the CLC wait until all union members in Canada are low-wage part-time working poor before it takes a stand on the ideals it claims to hold dear?

In Solidarity

Darryl Gehlen

Please feel free to contact me at my home address.

Email: dag@dowco.com

  • posted by BillPearson
  • Sat, Sep 7, 2002 7:30am

quote:


But what will be the workers fate if unions start to act against one another in the interests of accumulating members? Who will be their voice when unions abandon their 'first duty' and instead engage in the war to accumulate members


Let me first say Darryl's letter is nothing short of brilliant. What's even more impressive is, it's presented in terms and structure that most will grasp;though i'm not sure how many will have the courage to respond. It questions the very soul of the labor movement. What leader is willing to answer that point honestly and directly. The fact is, that's why i wish this site had more elected officers coming to it. These are the kinds of discussions that need to be had, and not in some backroom, but out front where workers and leaders can justify, rationalise or explain the logic of their actions.

I've chosen the quote above for that very purpose. There is a fair amount of data supporting the need to organize a large share of the market to be able to effectively negotiate good wage and benefit packages. Tradionally, Union contracts have a cost beyond the economics. Add in wages and benefits, and you will find non-union employers having an advantage from an opperational standpoint. Theoretically, better skilled, smarter workers would go where they get the best package in exchange for their labor. As you know, it doesn't necessarily work that way. There are many factors that influence where a worker chooses to work. Out of all of this, one would think that good contracts would result in non-union workers saying, "let's start a union in our workplace." Again, in theory, it should work like that, in reality, it often doesn't. At least in the states, organizing is an ugly business where workers undergo enormous preassures to become union.

Consequently, Unions look for other alternatives. Accretion is one way that has come under attack from this site. Don't want to argue the merits for or against here, but the reasons for it are sound. It ultimately is about ones ability to negotiate stronger collective bargaining agreements. I think that was the question/challenge in Darryl's letter. Why are union's doing things just to get members, when their primary function is to take care of the needs of the members. I don't think you can do one without the other. Again, his position on preserving the status quo is exceptional. The labor movement often labors under the premise of just taking care of what we have. It's not enough, it's never enough. We can never become complacent in what we have done for current members or in our goal to add new members to the union. Either without the other, insures our ultimate demise.

In the end, the membership has to be at the center of decisions that are to made. Whether it's the duration of the contract, how dues are spent, enforcement of an agreement and especially who and how officers are elected, it has to be about and for them. When that happens, there won't need to be letters written by workers/members asking these kinds of questions. When that happens, we'll have workers fighting to get back in Unions.

  • posted by Richard
  • Sat, Sep 7, 2002 8:19am

quote:


Accretion is one way that has come under attack from this site. Don't want to argue the merits for or against here, but the reasons for it are sound.


I'll agree that most union policies and practices are based on sound principles. However, in many cases, those principles have been long abandoned and the practices and and policies have been perverted to benefit the union elite.

If you ever come to Canada, Bill, you'll be swimming with some pretty big blood suckers. They will look like salmon and swim like trout, but when they leave you, they lurk like leeches in the darkness.

  • posted by weiser
  • Sun, Sep 8, 2002 11:19am

Good letter to Bro_Ken, but I don't think the CLC crew will have a clue about what was said.

They've just released one of the most astonishing media releases I have ever seen: Labour's falling apart because union members aren't literate.

That release is propaganda at its worst. Byers says:

quote:


"We know that the elites have historically had exclusive access to formal education....


What an insulting crock! Canada is loaded with literate union members. It isn't literacy on the part of the Power Source, it's incompetency on the part of the leaders and so-called union communications experts.

If you go to this site: Global Policy Forum, you will read that we are doing just fine in the literacy dept.

quote:


Canada has an adult literacy rate of 99 per cent, combined primary and secondary school enrolment at 100 per cent and per capita gross domestic product at $23,582 US - which is lower than Norway, the United States, Switzerland and Luxembourg.


Sure there are people who have fallen through the cracks, but they are few. We do, howerver, have a growing number of people who work for a living who do not read or write English because they are literate in another language. Hey, Barb! All the "Clear" English in the world isn't going to immediately help them. What about Clear Spanish, or Clear Chinese, or Clear Polish, or...?

Clear or "Plain" language is a step in the right direction, but don't insult the millions of Canadians and people who work for a living by telling them they aren't literate.

And Barb, if you applied a bit of critical thinking and logic, you would easily conclude that Power is derived from KNOWLEDGE not literacy. You can read and write all you want but if you don't understand, you have no power. Literacy enables the masses to gain knowledge.

If the CLC wants to promote power and participation, its honchos had best promote complete freedom of information, transparency of machine and machine-head activities, freedom of association and shop floor participation in the democratic process.

  • posted by remote viewer
  • Sun, Sep 8, 2002 1:07pm

Yes, yes. Putting our employer-friendly collective agreements and oppressive constitutions in clear language is a laudable goal as far as the CLC is concerned. It will make them easier to understand and presumably, easier to swallow.

What a crock is right weiser. For a communication about communication it's also confusing and poorly written. Understanding documents written in legalese is not a "literacy" issue, it's a "comprehension" issue. The problem is not "accessibility" (unless the docs are being kept secret), it's understanding what the words mean.

I'm not sure who this media release is directed at: Is it working people? If they're illiterate (which is what is being implied), how will they read it?

  • posted by siggy
  • Sun, Sep 8, 2002 2:03pm

quote:


I'm not sure who this media release is directed at: Is it working people? If they're illiterate (which is what is being implied), how will they read it?


Is there a bigger word than insult? You know one that us here "ordinary people can't understand"?

Get the stick out of your ass barb... it's playing havoc with your ego.

  • posted by Scott Mcpherson
  • Sun, Sep 8, 2002 3:03pm

quote:


They've just released one of the most astonishing media releases I have ever seen: Labour's falling apart because union members aren't literate.


I wrote the article "Origins of Reform" more than a year and half ago that expressed the need for more comon language in our collective agreements and constitutions. I certainly hope the CLC or anyone who might have read that piece never got even the slightest impression I was implying working people were stupid or illiterate because I wasn't.

I'd be willing to discuss my point some other time, but right now I want to say what a terrific job you did Darryl on that letter. It was honest, sincere and straight to the point and you should be proud of yourself. That the UFCW would risk loosing such a terrific leader in yourself and your fellow activists at lomans is beyond me. It's people like you that do a great service to all workers and reinforce need to for change and membership empowerment. Thankyou.

  • posted by remote viewer
  • Sun, Sep 8, 2002 6:42pm

quote:


"We know that the elites have historically had exclusive access to formal education....


What an absolutely moronic statement! I can't believe this is coming from a paid communications expert.

Formal education is mandatory in this country and is provided free of charge to everyone from Kindergarden through high school. Post secondary education, while costly, has by no means been out of reach of middle and lower income Canadians. All of the stats indicate that we have a well-educated population with a proportionally high number of college and university graduates.

Historically? Well, the children of the first generation of the North American middle class went off to colleges and universities in large numbers and brought us the multi-faceted revolution of the 1960's. They were not elitists by any stretch of the imagination. Many of them were from middle and lower income families.

It is simply not the case that "the elites have historically had exclusive access to formal education". This statement is as ridiculous as it is false.

If it's not what the author meant to say, that's too bad. We expect communications experts to communicate clearly.

  • posted by Troll
  • Sun, Sep 8, 2002 7:29pm

It looks like, to fill the vacuum created by empty labour rhetoric, these half-witted labour leaders are using moronic assertions plucked from thre arseholes of the spirits of ignorance that haunt the house of labour. "Scuse me, was that a ghostly fart, or was it something I should inhale and spew as labour wisdom?"

  • posted by Loman Life
  • Sun, Sep 8, 2002 8:42pm

I find it interesting that the mentality expressed in this communication seems to mirror the "wisdom" of the gurus who dictate economic policy. From their ivory towers these "elite" thinkers have come to the conclusion that "full employment" is not a viable strategy at this time. Hidden beneath the rhetoric concerning fears of rising inflation and debt reduction, these elite thinkers have concluded that downward pressure on wages and erosion of the social safety net are the order of the day. Their conclusions are not a topic that you are invited to participate in nor is the media particularly keen on covering them. Perhaps we are too illiterate to comprehend the issues. After all, it has taken the elite several years of ivy league schooling and economic theory model-making to arrive at these conclusions. That these conclusions further the economic interests of the elite is apparently only a coincidence. Ditto for media ownership.

The message is clear: remember your place and do not question those of superior intellect and station.

Kind of takes us back a 100 years or so. That unionism should fall victim to this egotistical expression of superiority is sad, sad, sad.

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