• authored by Members for Democracy
  • published Sat, Apr 27, 2002

You have the right to remain silent

Earlier this year, Sharyn Sigurdur, part time grocery store clerk, union member and union reformer found herself on the receiving end of lawsuit by her union. Her offense: paying the tab for the domain registration of this web site and expressing her views about union reform.

With limited resources and unable to afford legal representation, Sharyn appealed to the BC Civil Liberties Association for help. This is what she wrote:

"Although opposition to undemocratic practices within many mainstream labour unions has existed for decades, the obstacles confronting rank and file union reformers have been largely ignored by the mainstream media and not well-understood by the public. The extent to which freedom of expression is suppressed by organizations that purport to champion democracy and represent the interests of workers is not widely known and that ought to be cause for concern to those of us who value our civil liberties. Our aim, in addition to the support we provide to union reformers, is to raise awareness among the general public about these issues. We believe that the MFD site is quite unique in terms of the range of information, opinion and comment that it provides and opportunity for discussion that it provides to workers in Canada.

A lawsuit has been initiated against us and the web site by the United Food and Commercial Workers International union. This is the third lawsuit filed by this union against union democracy activists in the past six months. Three other activists and a Socialist newspaper have recently been threatened with legal action. The UFCW's campaign bears all the signs of a SLAPP lawsuit - a favoured tool of corporations wishing to silence their critics.

The UFCW is an enormous American labour union with vast resources. It appears quite willing to expend those resources on silencing its critics and especially those who choose to express themselves via the Internet. We are a small group of working people without resources who believe their constitutional right to freedom of expression being threatened. We are writing to request your support or any assistance that you may be able to give us as we move forward in defense of our constitutional rights. We believe that there are many compelling reasons why your organization may want to take an interest in this case and we would welcome an opportunity to discuss these with you."

On its web site, the BCCLA tells us:

"In today's democracy, our civil liberties may be threatened not only by the state, but also by powerful private organizations and employers. The B.C. Civil Liberties Association works to protect citizens from both government and private sector intrusions into our lives."

Well, the UFCW certainly qualifies as a powerful private organization and Sharyn Sigurdur as a citizen whose civil liberties are being threatened. Earlier this week, the BCCLA responded to her request for help.

In a tersely worded letter from Policy Director, Lindsay Lyster, Sharyn was told to bugger off. The BCCLA is picky about who it helps. "We do not typically provide legal advice or representation to individuals or organizations which contact us", Lyster explained. And then, as if that wasn't enough, based entirely on the brief letter Sharyn had written, Lyster pronounced that the UFCW's lawsuit was not, in his humble opinion, a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) "because it appears that the UFCW is actually intent on pursuing its litigation, not merely filing it is a means to silence its critics." Translation: The UFCW isn't trying to silence you because it is suing you. Great example of "screwing your head around until the picture looks right". That one could have come right out of Biz-Unionism for Dummies. Apart from the skewed logic though, there is something very troubling about this statement:

Lindsay, you've just said that you think the UFCW is intent on suing Sharyn, Kelsey and MFD. Do you know something we don't know? So far the UFCW has done absolutely nothing that would indicate that it is intent on pursuing this or any other lawsuit that it has filed against union reform advocates.

To whit: It has done nothing in its lawsuit against Sharyn Sigurdur, Kelsey Sigurdur or the MFD web site since filing it over 2 months ago. It has done nothing in its lawsuit against Hugh Finnamore that was filed in August of last year. It has done nothing in the case of William Gammert since running away with its tail between its legs on the first day of trial. It has not asked for trail dates, it has not asked for Discovery, it has not - in Finnamore's case - provided documents that were requested in September of last year. It has done nothing in the case of the Toronto activists against whom it commenced a lawsuit earlier this year. From where we sit, all it appears the UFCW is doing is filing lawsuits and those lawsuits are being filed against a very specific group of individuals - union reform advocates. It is not suing the newspapers in which Finnamore's opinion pieces were published. It is not suing the radio station that broadcast Finnamore's interviews. It has not sued the ISP's that support Bill Gammert's or the MFD web sites. It has not sued the publishers of the many articles, books and labour board reports that contain absolutely caustic criticism about it and its officials. It has done nothing except wage economic terrorism against those who are least likely to be able to defend themselves.

Lindsay, if you believe that the UFCW is intent on pursuing these lawsuits then you clearly know something that the Defendants in these actions do not. We want you to tell us what you know and how you know about it.

And after you've told us that you can tell us how it is that as an advocate of civil liberties you are not troubled by a powerful private organization asking for interim gag orders that would deny citizens their Charter rights for years the lawsuits are dealt with by the courts.

And then, finally, Lindsay, we would like to know from you just what it is that would get your organization's attention? To what extent do citizens have to be terrorized by powerful private organizations before the BBCLA will take an interest in their plight?

And after you've answered these questions Lindsay, you can go back to wringing your hands about civil liberties...or whatever it is that you do.

Top stories

Wildcat strike avoided at BC supermarket

A possible wildcat strike at a Vancouver area Save-On Foods store was narrowly avoided earlier this month. The workers who threatened to walk off the job hour are part of a lower-tier "junior clerk" classification that was introduced in a concessionary contract signed by Local 1518 in 1997. Some of them earn as little as $8.00 per hour.

Reliable sources report that the workers, who were fed up with their low pay and working conditions, were dissuaded from taking direct action by their union representatives who assured them that their issues would be tabled at negotiations coming up next year. "Everything you want is on the table and we are going to negotiate in the next contract", the workers were assured by their representatives. - discussion

Safeway punishes workers for going on strike - demands their loyalty 24/7

Safeway Canada has applied to the Ontario Ministry of Labour for a government-supervised vote on its final offer and flatly stated that it will close its Thunder Bay stores if workers reject the concessionary deal. The workers, members of UFCW Local 175, have been on strike since October 1, 2001.

A company spokesperson stated that the offer the company is putting to a vote contains several items intended to make employees help pay for company losses during the strike.

Union representatives have said that the company is also demanding elimination of Christmas bonuses, sick days and a training and education fund. In addition, Safeway management wants to require part-time workers to be available for around the clock shifts, a demand the union claims would make it virtually impossible for part-timers to hold other jobs. - discussion

New Packinghouse Union in Canada

Packinghouse workers at Garden Province Meats and Larsons Meat Packers, both companies in (Atlantic) Canada filed petitions to decertify UFCW and to certify a newly formed union Atlantic Meat Packers Union (AMU).

According to reliable sources, 70 percent of the workers support AMU. The labor board certified the AMU at Larsons Meats but the petition at Garden Province Meats was dismissed on a technicality. - discussion

Our contributors write:

About unions suing their members:

The concept of contract law escapes those who feel that they are powerless to fight an injustice. If a contract exists and there are mutual benefits to that contract i.e.: rank and file contractual benefits and dues paid to the union that the contract is enforceable. That means the same requirements to act in good faith and in accordance with the Constitution applies with both rank and file and the leadership of the Union. - Fisher

Your argument would imply that UFCW Canada's lawsuit against the MFD violates that requirement to act in good faith. The UFCW is suing its own members just for exercising their free speech and attempting to expose and root out the corruption you admit may exist. By consequence of your argument, this breaks the leadership's "contract" with the union's members.

Rather than suing, the UFCW leaders should publicly refute dissident members criticism, and by force of their argument, convince the members that they deserve the members continued support. This is the ordinary process of politics and public debate in a democratic organization, like the UFCW claims to be. - globalize this - discussion

The legal approach to internal matters should only arise after all internal reliefs have been attempted. Freedom of speech is not an open invitation to attack without proof of the statements made but if they have merit than there should be no fear of the courts. Good faith and the requirements therein are balance with or rather tempered with the benefit of the group at large. These decisions come from our elected executive members and if we disagree with their philosophy we work to replace them with members we can agree with, that Labours way. UFCW members who have come up against what they feel is a brick wall or who have proof of corruption in our Union you would be doing us all a great service if go above the heads of those who block your efforts. Because accountability is important to us all. The pretty words you refer to are my beliefs in both our Union and the Labour movement at large and are more than just words I assure you. - Fisher - discussion

As a human being, does not what your union is doing to the family and friends that make this web site possible just make your stomach turn? Do you not feel any shame as a unionist regardless of which union you belong to? Can you not feel for in this form who is afraid to speak for fear of more charges. - about unions - discussion

Problem solving the biz-union way:

We met with Dan Gilbert (Executive Assistant to UFCW Canada Director, Mike Fraser) on July 04, we told him unless he had an answer before august 1st. (our open period) we would decertify. We received a letter during the week of the 13 of Aug. We filed to decertify Aug. 15. His reply was "The information provided to me at our meeting of Wednesday, July 4.2001 has been given to Director Fraser". This office will be in further contact with you in the near future in an endeavor to resolve the collective problems to everyone's satisfaction. I have not heard from him since. It was clear to us that there would be no changes or solutions. - whiteway - discussion

What it is to be a unionist:

To me I belong to Cupe. I am a unionist, but a proud unionist first before any affiliation. To me there is a distinction that needs to be made. If you are a unionist too, would it really matter which union name you carried? Your values are in your mind and heart, not in some name. Would you not do the same thing, think the same way regardless of which union you belonged to? - about unions - discussion

So here's where this gets good. Members should hold their elected officials accountable. To do that, they have to know what's going on. That means it is the leaderships responsibility to make them an active and willing part of the process. It means we have to empower them to be the solution by being the power behind the Union. It can't be the elected officials, it has to start at the membership level. That means we give them skills, knowledge and information to succeed. I know how terrifying that is, because it means someone might come along and take my job. I can't think of a better stimulus to insure I do a good job for the membership. We can start by changing how we negotiate and ratify contracts. Nothing we do should be a secret. If we are embarrassed by what we bring to the members, then it probably isn't good enough. The members are the sole reason for our existence, and we ought to operate from that perspective. Every time in this business I've had a problem I couldn't solve, the members could. And then , there's the final kicker. Members who think they can do a better job than me should have a fair chance to run for that position. That's what and when true Union democracy will take place.

Bottom-up unionism is just this simple, it's about the membership, not about the leadership. We are not the power behind the Union, the members are. When we get to that point, workers will be fighting to get into Unions. - Bill Pearson - discussion

To me the name of a union is just that and means nothing more. In fact you don't have to pay dues to be a unionist. You should have seen the looks on the faces of the two owners of the non union store I work at when I said "I consider myself to be a unionist" during our mini negotiations for my wage etc. I swear they stopped breathing for a second until I clarified my current position for them. Still I am what I am and make no effort to hide it.

I don't try to hide from who and what I am, I wear it like a badge of honour. However, that said there is no place in my heart for weak, corrupt, self serving dishonest back stabbing lying cheating despotic criminals who pass themselves off as unionist simply because their friends and relatives
pulled enough strings to get them into powerful positions in the union. [whichever union that may be] That simply will not stand and I want no part of it. - Scott McPherson - discussion

I don't see a leader as taking anybody anywhere. A leader should be a visionary. A leader should be able to articulate her or his vision in such a way that others embrace the vision and then call it their own. People follow the vision, not the leader. Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream. His dream lives on even though he has departed to a greater calling. The dream is always more important than the dreamer. - weiser - discussion

and what it isn't...

Having the employer pick a union for employees is wrong. Having an employer make a decision based on the best deal offered by a union is despicable. Employee auctions are bizarre to most trade unionists, but you seem to see nothing wrong with it. - troll - discussion

What it's like being empowered

It's so nice to see the smug look on the faces of the untouchables has been replaced by the look of fear......! I actually look forward to going into work again. - Demon - discussion

Thanks to you who said you're not drinking Labatt products right now. It's enlightening to be on the picket line and have a couple in their 80's stop and tell us how they, or their relatives have worked for Labatt in the past, but now it's just a greedy multinational who doesn't care about the very young people who helped build this company through their purchases of our product. Asking people to boycott it is hard for me to do, but it gets easier with each passing month. - porchdog - discussion

What it's like being sold out

Once again I'd like to speak for the better half of the members of the Saskatchewan Strike. THIS UNION SOLD US OUT!!!!!!!!!!!! How the heck can you say this was a better deal for the members? When can the part timers start using these "benefits" What benefits Greg? Where were you when this deal was made? With comments like that how the hell can anyone in this union have any faith whatsoever in you? I'm so sick of comments like that! This company has screwed us and so has this union. IS THERE ANYONE OUT THERE THAT CAN HELP US GET RID OF THIS MICKEY MOUSE TEAM!! Maybe someone else out there can explain the reason why we go on strike. I didn't realize that it was to show the company that we would actually "dare" to do it. Wasn't it supposed to accomplish anything? What did it really accomplish? Lost wages for 2 weeks, and a benefit package part timers cant touch until the exalted grand poobah bow's his royal head and grants the commoners access? Gimme a break!!!!!! - no faith - discussion

They have spent 4 yrs being told they are Junior Clerks by everyone deemed
to be in a power position They have spent 4 yrs being represented by a Letter of Understanding in the collective agreement that hasn't done them any favours.

They are staying away because of unelected, imbalanced steward representation. 75% of the hours are worked by Junior Clerks, 25% worked by pre-rats. The appointed steward representation is made up of 75% pre-rat to 25% Junior clerk.

They are staying away from GMM's because the meetings are held too far away.

The only contact most second tier workers have had with the machine would
have been any given leafleting blitz done by the machines' MSR team.

Any wonder they're angry? - siggy - discussion

Sounds like SASK needs a RESCUE from the UFCW Master Bargainers or could some say UFCW Master Concessionaires...........or should we say "Thanks UFCW" another done deal that continues the decline of our Standard Of Living. Guaranteed union dues a success for the exec, who will take 70% of such dues for the salaries. - wannabecaw - discussion

Why we look the other way

As far as corruption in unions goes, the vast majority of Canadians have no idea how unions operate or how little democracy some unions practice. Many people assume that unions are highly democratic because they have elections and processes that appear democratic. Their reaction to corruption therefore is: if you don't like your leaders, just vote them out. They don't have a clue how almost impossible that is. Some assume that labour relations boards are empowered to deal with union corruption, which they are not. Still others assume that if there's corruption, the cops must be on to it and will bring the perpetrators to justice. The sad reality is that Canadian law enforcement agencies seem to have little, if any, interest in union corruption. Still others believe that there can't be any corruption because if there was, the media would be reporting it. Well, the Canadian mainstream media is disinterested in labour issues generally and union corruption issues specifically.

So there you go: People don't think there is corruption in unions because they don't see it, they don't hear about it, nobody's getting busted for it and - that old Canadian thing - we're just too nice a bunch of guys for that sort of stuff. - remote viewer - discussion

"I feel that there is strength in numbers"

That statement should be fact. However, when you look at the UFCW and the Canadian grocery industry, you see it's fallacy.

There is no strength in numbers if the numbers aren't employed as one. In other words, if solidarity isn't sanctioned and exercised there is no strength no matter how many people you have as members.

When you see Safeway contracts expired all over Western Canada, and when you see Westfair contracts expired all over Western Canada, you would think there would be enormous strength in solidarity. There is if the solidarity is sanctioned and exercised.

What happened then? Was there lack of will on the part of the UFCW? Was there lack of strategy? Was there lack of leadership? What was lacking?

The UFCW sells itself on its numbers. What exactly does its numbers really mean for the average worker? If there is no solidarity amongst the numbers then numbers are meaningless. - weiser - discussion

Words to live by:

I despise everything going in the same direction and everything lined up in a row. There is room for diversity isn't there? Leadership denies diversity, takes on a uniformity that ain't natural.

IMHO no one person should ever be more than a participant. Anyone with a particular skill would be ethically obligated to act as facilitator. We all know that whatever our background, we are all blessed with at least one special skill. - siggy - discussion

Post with the most

Siggy, you are a true leader. You, and slek, and others have kept the MFD alive and growing in the face of tremendous obstacles. This is more than "just" a web site. Its a finger on a major pressure point of the organized labor bureaucracy - a shameful legacy of corruption and dictatorship, characteristic of biz-unionism, and evidenced not just in the UFCW but many other unions. Each day this web site is up and running, you push a little harder, and the bureaucracy creaks and groans. Some day soon, its going to fall down.

You folks lost the local 1518 elections, fairly or not. You were beaten pretty soundly in that battle. But you're going to win the war. That's what the UFCW is so afraid of. That's why they're suing you. It's because you're not going away, you're getting stronger every day. They're in trouble, and they know it.

Keep up the courage of your convictions. And keep holding onto your vision of the "big picture". Develop it. Share it. Because some day, you're going to be called on to implement it. - globalize this - discussion


Beyond Exclusive Collective Bargaining, Richard B. Freeman and Joel Rogers

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