• authored by Members for Democracy
  • published Sat, Nov 3, 2001

Lies of our times

"The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed." (Steve Biko, antiapartheid activist, murdered by South African security forces in 1977).

Every ruling order that wants to keep on ruling must find ways to keep its subjects loyal, quiet and complacent. Where the use of brute force is not a option, this objective is achieved through the cultivation of a mythology that presents the rulers as good and wise and their actions - even those that may seem self-serving or brutish - as necessary and beneficial. The mythology breeds dependence on the rulers by the ruled and obscures or, where it can't obscure, excuses away the rulers' behaviors that might otherwise cause the ruled to rise up and riot. Noam Chomsky calls this phenomenon the creation of "necessary illusions", on the street you may hear it called bullshit-baffling-brains. Whatever you want to call it, this week's MFD was filled with good examples of mainstream labour and its leaders' necessary bullshit. Let's have a look at a few:

Myth: Unions have trouble organizing in the service industry because of bad legislation, bad employers and bad workers. Labour legislation makes it difficult to organize, the employers are hostile, there's too much turnover in service industry and the workers aren't really interested in the benefits of joining unions.

Reality: The UFCW organized over 1000 workers at 29 Swiss Chalet restaurants scattered across Ontario during a 4-month period in 1984. Their campaign faced opposition from the employer as well as an incumbent union, a hybrid of the independent CURRE that organized the workers in the late 1970's and CLC-affiliated HERE. The labour legislation of the day was not substantially different from what's on the books today. Despite these obstacles, the UFCW signed up enough workers to file 24 applications for certification in a 3-month period. As if that wasn't enough, a year later the UFCW was able to re-sign most of these same workers and file a second set of applications for certification. If it could be done in 1984 why can't it be done in 2001?

Myth: The government is here to help you. The law protects workers. Labour Relations Boards and arbitration hearings are where workers go to get justice.

Reality: Labour relations boards and labour arbitrators are the gatekeepers of the labour relations system. The system is not there to provide workers with justice. It exists to keep peace in the valley between the "institutional parties" - the employers and the unions. Union members don't really figure in the picture. Union members have the right to decide which union they want to join but once they become "the property of...", it's game over in the rights department. Apart from their pathetically under-enforced Duty to Fair Representation (DFR) rights, members will be hard-pressed to find any other rights that apply to them rather than their unions.

You'll find a good example of the system's gatekeepers hard at work in the most recent chapter in the Swiss Chalet story. In 1985 the OLRB issued a decision about, among other things, UFCW allegations about Foodcorp Limited having assisted CURRE (the independent "employer's choice" union that initially organized the workers) in its organizing efforts in 1979. After hearing extensive evidence about the company having planted undercover agents in a number of Swiss Chalet Restaurants to encourage workers to join CURRE, the Board found the company guilty as sin. Its breach of the law was "clear, serious and disturbing" the Board said. Having considered what to do about that though, the Board went on to say the legalistic equivalent of "aw, what the hell". So much time had passed and so much had happened, the Board reasoned, that it wouldn't be fair to penalize the union by taking away its bargaining rights now. Then there was the sanctity of the collective bargaining relationship. Collective bargaining relationships are special and must be nurtured and protected. It doesn't matter what kind of a relationship it is, as long as there is one then it's worth protecting. Not that we want to split hairs but, those who read our story or the actual OLRB decision from which much of the story is drawn, will know that only about 4 years had passed since the original CURRE certifications and the UFCW's organizing campaign - hardly an eternity. As far as so much having happened, the only noteworthy thing that occurred during those four years is that large numbers of workers decided they wanted out of CURRE and into a union of their own choice. This didn't seem to make much of an impression on the Board however. In fact, the Board ventured that it's decision to not penalize Foodcorp or CURRE may have been different if the undercover organizing had come to its attention at the time of CURRE's original certification (as if to blame the workers themselves for not knowing that the wool was being pulled over their eyes).

The gatekeepers are there to sort out various union-employer disputes and union-union property rights disputes. This is why most DFR complaints go nowhere - no matter what the union has or hasn't done (see this thread for an example of what a union didn't do in the case of a couple of members who were dismissed). No matter how poorly a union goes about representing its members, its chances of ever getting nailed on a DFR are negligible. In Ontario there are now more DFR complaints filed each year by members against their unions than there are unfair labour practices complaints filed by unions against employers. A lot of union officials dismiss this problem as resulting from the members being more aware of their rights (well duh?!).

Myth: Loaning union members' money to biz-guys creates union jobs.

Reality: If you read our Haunted Houses of Labour story you will know that UFCW National Director Tom Kukovica described the rationale behind the loan of millions of dollars from the UFCW pension plan (CCWIPP) to certain hotel operators as something that was being done to "create union jobs". Judging from what occurred at the Toronto hotel that was the focus of much of the story, the CCWIPP loaned one hotel company $15 million and that created 150 jobs - paying between $8.00 and $15.00 per hour. If the pension money was really being invested to create jobs, that would work out to an investment of $100,000.00 per job. Try as we might, we have a difficult time seeing a positive in a cost-benefit analysis on this investment scheme. (We thought it was the employer that was supposed to pay to create jobs anyway). We wonder how CCWIPP members have benefited from the financing of these hotels - or who else may have benefited given that the same cast of characters are involved in administering the pension plan, loaning out money from the pension plan and receiving the loans. The bottom line is, this looks more like a strategy to create union members than to create jobs.

Myth: Raiding is bad. Unions should respect each other's turf. Raiding weakens the labour movement by causing dissension among unions and taking their leaders minds off of organizing the unorganized.

Reality: The terrible truth is that "raiding" is only raiding when the mainstream leaders say that it is. If we define "raiding" as any situation where one union is involuntarily forfeiting its representation rights for a group of workers to another union (the definition most commonly given to union members), then the veneer of solidarity and brotherhood gets pretty thin pretty fast. As we've already discussed in an earlier review, raiding is OK as long as it doesn't involve two CLC affiliates. "Raids" by CLC affiliates on independent unions or unions affiliated with rival umbrella orgs are OK anytime. But even among CLC affiliates, the rules about raiding are fairly elastic. Look at the strange situation involving the UFCW and HERE Local 75 in the Haunted Houses story. The UFCW walked right in and took over as bargaining agent at hotels that it had financed with CCWIPP money despite the fact that HERE had been the bargaining agent at these hotels for years. Sure, the hotels were closed at the time and all of HERE's members had been laid off, but HERE certainly believed it had successor rights once the hotels re-opened and the OLRB agreed. We don't recall there ever being a fuss at the CLC about this even though HERE was and is an affiliate. Then there was the report of the UFCW was providing office space for an independent union that was in the process of raiding HERE. If true, how does this sit relative to the "no raiding" rule? The reality seems to be that the "no raiding" rule is applied very selectively and exists mainly to keep the property of from walking off on its own.

Myth: Union leaders deserve to make big 6 digit salaries and to receive all kinds of generous fringe benefits. They work hard and they deserve it and company guys make big bucks the lame reasoning goes on forever.

Reality: There are a lot of factors that determine how much we get paid. How hard we work isn't one of them except maybe in the case of piece workers. Even if it was, it's arguable that union honchos work harder than many of their low wage-earning members. It depends on how you define "working hard". Flying around in private planes, rubbing elbows with the rich and famous, golfing with the boss versus ...what the members do. Hmmmm. We just don't see it - do you? Here's a comparison of union leaders' salaries and those of their members. Notice that the enormous gaps in the case of the UFCW, HERE and the SEIU, all of whose leaders earn well in excess of $200,000 a year (US) but whose full time members earn less than $20,000. Now really, what do these guys deserve?

Myth: Union leaders need to go on lavish trips to expensive resorts with benefits administrators. This is so that they can stay up to speed on developments in the fast paced field of benefits administration.

Reality: These trips are perks that the rulers enjoy and have gotten accustomed to over the years. There is nothing about benefits administration that is going to be discussed in Hawaii or Florida that can't be discussed in any Canadian city, over the phone or on e-mail. Next week's Hawaiian adventure (discussed in this week's forum) is an opportunity for union leaders to tan their hides in luxurious surroundings while - just to make it even better - rubbing elbows with biz-guys, lawyers and money managers (have a look at this impressive line up). Judging from these posts on a Teamster's reform site, the Teamsters are also sending a sizable delegation, to the dismay of some of their members it would seem.

Aloha Bernard -This week's ick-pick

This week's ick-pick goes to UFCW Local 832 President/CCWIPP Trustee Bernie Christophe who will be partying in Hawaii with the benefits admin boys while his members at Manitoba Safeway stores face company demands for a $5.00/hour wage cut. Very impressive Bernard - we know that the company guys will think you're a real man of the people when you're puttin' back the beverages poolside with them.

So - there are a lot of myths that circulate around the mainstream of labour. They are there to keep the rulers ruling and the ruled fooled. If you've ever listened to your mainstream leaders on subjects like raiding, union leaders' pay, the lifestyles of the rich and famous and had the feeling that what they're saying just doesn't add up - it's because it doesn't.

Stop believing the myths - make your own reality reformers.

Coming up this week: A UFCW local election, Teamster reformers shake things up and a deal goes down for the Swiss Chalet workers.

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