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  • authored by Members for Democracy
  • published Sat, Nov 16, 2002

Knowledge is Power Knowing How Little You Have Is Not

On November 13th, 2002, at a much-publicized media breakfast, the President of the Canadian Labour Congress, Kenneth V. Georgetti (or as he is known around here, Bro_Ken) announced the launch of a new web site and discussion forum that, according to him, is going to help non-unionized workers know, understand and assert their rights, no matter where they are in Canada.

The President of the Canadian Labour Congress, Ken Georgetti launched today a new tool to help non-unionized workers know, understand and assert their rights, anywhere (sic) they are in Canada, in both official languages.

(From www.newswire.ca)

The tool - www.workrights.ca - provides basic information about employment legislation in Canadian provinces. It's filled with references to minimum employment standards, human rights, health and safety and pay equity legislation. The site is short on detail and long on pronouncements about protections that workers have. These are true, in theory, but largely meaningless in practice.

It's nice to have all this information under one roof but how it's going to help non-union workers to know anything they don't already know or assert anything at all is a mystery. Information about minimum employment standards, health and safety, human rights and pay equity is readily available to workers on provincial government Internet sites. It's easy to look up and simple to understand because, no matter where you live in Canada, there isn't much there to understand. Employment Standards legislation covers some very basic ground - minimum wages, hours or work, overtime, vacation, statutory holiday entitlements, maternity and parental leave, termination notice and severance pay. These minimum standards are minimal in every sense of the word.

In Ontario, Canada's wealthiest province, minimum wage is $6.85 per hour (an absolute pittance considering the cost of living in the wealthiest province). There are lower minimum wages for students and wait staff who serve liquor. Vacation entitlement is 2 weeks no matter how long you've worked for your employer. Termination notice is one week per year of service to a maximum of 8 weeks. Been with the company 30 years? TS - all you get is 8 weeks notice of the boot, no matter how spurious the reason. Workers are entitled to a half-hour unpaid break after 5 hours of work time. There is no entitlement to any further breaks. Overtime is payable after 60 hours of work in a week (if the worker agrees) or 44 hours if the worker doesn't agree - so it's basically after 60 hours - and those hours can be averaged out over a period of several weeks if the worker agrees.

"If your boss is breaking the law, what can you do about it?" asks the CLC's media release about workrights.ca. It doesn't really provide an answer and neither does the web site. There's a good reason for this. The truth is, the answer to the question is "sweet-F.A.".

There are no real protections for workers who are unjustly fired or for those whose bosses are breaking the law. True, as www.workrights.ca tells us, you can't be fired for filing a complaint under the legislation but you can be fired just about any other reason - even for no reason. Workers who have tried to go head-to-head with the boss in a non-union establishment (and even some who have tried in a unionized environment) know this first hand: Mess with the boss and you'll get canned. There are a lot of different ways that this can be accomplished. Some bosses will tell you "You're a shitdisturber, so we're firing you" but many won't be quite so upfront about their reasons. You'll just be laid off, or taken off the schedule indefinitely or given a shift that you can't work or given the lousiest of tasks so that you quit or any one of any number of incentives to leave. Your employer has no obligation to prove "just cause" for dismissal and they all know it. Worst case scenario, they'll be found to owe you the trifling amount of termination pay for having done you without notice. Small enough price to pay.

For those who get done or done out of their minimal rights, the enforcement process leaves a lot to be desired. Many government agencies have drastically scaled back on enforcement staff and some - like Ontario - leave workers to do a lot of the legwork themselves.

Employees who believe that their employer or former employer hasn't followed the ESA (Employment Standards Act) are encouraged, when appropriate, to discuss the matter with the employer-or with their union representative, if they have one.

Or they may want to send the employer a letter explaining the problem and asking to have it resolved. Employees who need help writing the letter can contact the Ministry of Labour for assistance, and should keep a copy of the letter and the mailing receipt.

If you believe your rights have been violated, you should try to resolve the matter yourself with your employer. For example, speak with your employer or send the employer a letter. Explain in the letter what the problem is and how you expect the employer to resolve it. If you send the letter by registered mail, keep the registered mail receipt and a copy of the letter. If you need help writing the letter to your employer, you should visit a Ministry of Labour District Office.

If you are unable to resolve the matter by yourself, contact the ministry for assistance. A claim form can be obtained from Ministry of Labour district offices, Government Information Centres and by Fax-on-Demand.

(From www.gov.on.ca)

So, if you've been fired or bilked out of your minimal rights, what you have to do is this: First you have to try to work it out with the employer who fired you or bilked you out of your entitlements (or both) in the first place. If you don't get anywhere and you still haven't lost the will to fight, an Officer from the bureaucracy will attempt to work it out for you. The Officer tries to mediate a solution with your employer and, if the employer is unreasonable, has the power to decide what you get. It can't be more than you're entitled to under the minimal standards so, even if you win, you're not going to have to call Brinks to take it to the bank. If you get nothing, you can appeal to the Ontario Labour Relations Board. The Board will decide what you get but, again, it's based on the minimal standards and you'll need an even smaller truck to take it home. By this stage, you may have retained or at least consulted with a lawyer and have had to shell out for that. It's a pretty onerous, lengthy and lonely process.

If that's not enough to discourage most non-union workers from pursuing their minimal entitlements, consider that under the Ontario legislation, you can only go back 6 months in a claim and the max you can claim is $10,000. Once you've filed your complaint you give up your right to file a civil suit against your employer. To greedy biz guys who aren't even good enough to comply with the measly standards, that's a small enough price to pay. Considering that you probably don't earn big bucks to begin with, the exposure to the employer (whatever he or she had done you out of) is as minimal as your rights.

It is up to every worker to ensure that he or she is being treated fairly, and to look out for abuses in the workplace that affect the rights of others.

WorkRights gives you a chance to access the latest information on the labour codes to your province, and to compare practices in your region with those of ther (sic) provinces and territories in Canada.

It really isn't up to workers to ensure that they are being treated fairly. It's up to the agencies that administer the legislation that provides the minimal standards. It's up to individual workers to raise complaints about how they - as individuals - are treated. But beyond filing a complaint with whatever ministry or department looks after the minimal standard they're complaining about, there isn't much that a worker can do to ensure fair treatment for him or herself, much less for others.

So what the hell are Bro_Ken and the well-intentioned folks at www.workrights.ca going on about? How is anyone going to benefit by being more assertive about rights that are so minimal and so poorly enforced as to make them pretty much meaningless. How do you empower working people with a tool that is the equivalent of a manual on how-to-look-stuff-up-in-the-yellow-pages or how-to-get-more-out-of-the-bus-schedule? What's really going on here?

A close look at the less prominent information on the site reveals that the web site itself is owned by a Blair Rosser who is the Director of Applied Technologies, 7thfloormedia.com, at Simon Fraser University, the very same organization that is given credit for designing www.workrights.ca.

WorkRights.ca advises visitors: "If you have any questions or would like further information about this site, please direct inquiries to The WorkRights Site administrator": jkay@unionservices.ca. A whois search of unionserves.ca reveals that unionservices.ca is registered to Lisa Georgetti. Lisa's contact e-mail is lisa@columbiafoundation.ca.

Further whois research reveals that www.columbiafoundation.ca is registered to Lisa Maree of the same address as www.unionservices.ca. And who is connected to www.columbiafoundation.ca? If you guessed Ken Georgetti, President of the Canadian Labour Congress, you're right. Bro_Ken is a Director of the Columbia Foundation along with seven other big wheels from the labour-investment community. Their mission, by the way, is "investing in Canada's human and social capital".

Also listed as belonging to Lisa Georgetti is www.share.ca. She holds the official title of administrator, e-mail address info@share.ca. Once again Ken Georgetti heads a list of Directors for www.share.ca. SHARE is the Shareholder Association for Research and Education, a not-for-profit organization "helping pension funds to build sound investment practices, to protect the interest of plan beneficiaries and to contribute to a just and healthy society". SHARE's web site says that it "works with pension trustees, plan administrators, and plan members to develop and implement sound programmes and practices that respond effectively to the needs of plan members and beneficiaries" and this it provides education for pension fund trustees and advocates shareholder action. A number of west coast labour heavies (including UFCW Local 1518 Pres, Brooke Sundin) fill out SHARE's Board of Directors along with Bro_Ken.

Just what the connection is between all the web sites registered by Lisa Maree Georgetti, Ken Georgetti, and workrights.ca is not known at this time. All we do know it that the moderator at www.workrights.ca goes by the name Lisa Maree.

What we do believe, for all the reasons that we've already presented, is that workrights.ca is going to help as many workers as can dance on the head of a pin. The folks who will benefit from the new web site in tangible, meaningful ways are those who administer and maintain it and - just maybe - those who may be on the look out for disenchanted workers.

WorkRights.ca also offers a place where workers can compare their salaries with others who do the same job. In addition, it also includes a discussion forum and a place where workers can report employers who are breaking the law.

Oh bullshit! Comparing salaries with others who do the same job is information that workers can get from a whole range of sources including their friends and neighbours. As for reporting employers who are breaking the law; reporting them to whom? The CLC has no authority to file complaints on behalf of workers (union or non-union) and even if it did, what's the CLC going to do for them once they get fired? Call us cynical but this isn't about helping non-union workers get their minimal entitlements or about exposing bad bosses, if it's about anything it's about getting leads for organizing.

The biz-unions that effectively rule the CLC have a business mentality. More members mean more dues, which means more money for budgets and expense accounts. It's getting hard to organize them. Union membership is on the decline and no amount of gimmickry seems to be helping. Workers aren't lining up to sign membership cards. Even the UFCW's famous racing car or its much-touted hip-hop version of Solidarity Forever aren't getting the unorganized sufficiently excited. While www.workrights.ca appears at a glance to be what is says it is, a source of information for all workers about their rights, protections, and benefits, the fact that the Canadian Labour Congress sponsors the web site may simply be a strategy to try and steer workers to join its needier unions. If that's the case, we've got to wonder which biz-u-barn will be the recipient of the disgruntled masses who will surely, any day now, be posting their beefs on Lisa Maree's new web site.

Who's this really helping? We're not sure but we don't think it's the workers.

Around here, we believe that workers' rights do not come from legislation. It's good to have legislation but to date, legislation has been pretty ineffective. Workers rights and entitlements come from workers' collective efforts at getting really good deals out of their employers. Good, effective, focused and relentless representation is what workers need - not a crash course on how to shop the yellow pages. Knowing, understanding and asserting meaningless rights is an exercise in futility. Getting and keeping meaningful rights and desirable entitlements and is what counts. Anything short of this is a waste of everybody's time and energy. Unions are workers' only avenue to getting the stuff that matters - so the CLC's time would be better spent in knowing and understanding why it's bloated affiliates aren't making that happen and asserting the importance of good, effective unionism which - in our view - is democratic unionism.

It's very discouraging that the Canadian Labour Congress has done very little to ensure that existing union workers' rights are protected within their unions as well as in the workplace. On what basis is the CLC to be offering advice to non-union members?

On workRights.ca, they can all be found in one place, in an easy to read, easy to grasp format," said Georgetti. "Today's workers, much like today's consumers, have been abandoned by governments that used to be on their side. Unless there's a union around to help workers come together and protect one another, they are very much on their own. Governments trust employers to protect workers' rights. We don't."

With all due respect Bro_Ken, today's workers aren't consumers-of -representation. They're not social or human capital. Get that venture capitalist shit out of your head. Governments - of any stripe - have never really been concerned about working people, so there is really no issue of abandonment by government. The most significant abandonment of workers has been on the part of the mainstream labour movement and its houses of the holy.

Get it straight - workers don't need a crash course on their lack of rights. Most are keenly aware of how few they have. They don't need to be fed a lot of rhetoric about how it's their job to report on bad bosses. It's organized labour's job to deal effectively with bad bosses. Don't put the responsibility on the disempowered, it won't make them any more empowered. It will only heighten their sense of despair and their disconnectedness.

Instead of spending their money on gimmicks and media conferences, tell your affiliated unions and the pompous asses who run them to quit dicking around and get working people some serious rights and entitlements - ones that are worth posting on the world wide web.

Now here are some web sites that are really making things happen:

And our very favourite...

... the only pro-worker web site that we're aware of being sued by one of your bloated affiliates for its dedication to making working people more knowledgeable about things that really count.

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