Visit uncharted.ca!
  • authored by Members for Democracy
  • published Sat, Sep 22, 2001

The Tangled Web

Looking over the information that's turned up on our site over the past couple of weeks, indeed over the past several months, one can't help but think that we're looking at the pieces of a large, complicated puzzle; one that presents a picture of an enormous web with something especially ugly at its hub.

Each piece of the puzzle seems to involve the UFCW or the UFCW and some other union, employer or business enterprise, and activities that seem...well, unusual would be the most charitable spin we can put on them. The pieces are beginning to connect, giving us a glimpse of a web of relationships and activities that don't seem to have much to do with advancing the interests of workers. On the contrary, they seem to be all about money.

Solidarity Sometimes

We heard a lot about relationships between the UFCW and other unions this past week. Among the most intriguing of these is the one between the UFCW and the Textile Processors Union. The merger of the two big unions in the US a few years ago prompted opposition from Textile Processors members and challenges in the courts (see www.business-journal.com and www.ilnd.uscourts.gov). The merger on the Canadian side of the border, finalized in 1996, went over without a hitch. But what was the deal? We learned this week about the acquisition of a prime piece of Toronto real estate that housed the TP's Canadian offices, by the John Evans, son of Cliff Evans, at an oh-so-sweet price. Then we discovered that UFCW International Rep, Ralph Ortlieb was an officer of a company owned by the former head of the Canadian Textile Processors and was involved in the sale of the building to John Evans. Ralph went on to become Prez of his own little piece of UFCW turf, Local 351 - the new incarnation of Textile Processors Local 351. Ralph wasted no time in moving Local 351's office to a building in Hamilton, one which is owned by a company connected to the UFCW's hotel interests. The merger of the Canadian TP's with the UFCW came conveniently on the heals of the TP's successful "raid" on a HERE bargaining unit at a Toronto hotel which had been the recipient of $15 million dollars of funding from the CCWIPP and two of its "beneficially owned" I.F. Propco companies. The UFCW had tried to acquire bargaining rights at the hotel through voluntary recognition and later through a raid of its own but struck out in both attempts. The TP's merger brought this, and a number of other hotels, into the UFCW fold. (See this article for a more detailed account.) If you're having trouble following the action, don't feel badly. It'll get worse before it gets better.

Not far behind on the intrigue-o-meter, is the relationship between UFCW and CURRE, the former union of Swiss Chalet Restaurant workers across Canada. The two merged in 1997 although it appears that their relationship was cooking much earlier - as far back at least as 1992 when a CURRE local in BC was trusteed with a little help from the UFCW. We learned this week that Cliff Evans dispatched one of his own to do the trustee-ing - a rare display of brotherly love for an "independent" union by the head of a CLC affiliate (discussion). The story of the Swiss Chalet workers and their unions will be featured over the next few weeks. You'll see that there is quite a complicated history between CURRE, the UFCW and HERE. Little is ever said in the mainstream world of labour about the "independent" union that organized an entire restaurant chain in the late 70's and then went on to...oh, you'll have to wait.

And what about the UFCW and HERE? Suffice it to say that all has not been well between the two giants of service unionism. The UFCW's interest in the Toronto hotel business in the 90's could not have endeared it to HERE, which considered the hotel industry to be its prime turf (with the exception of a few hotels represented by - guess who - the Textile Processors). It's participation in the trusteeship of the BC CURRE local that HERE was raiding in 1992 could not have made things much better. Then there is the UFCW's coziness with the mysterious CURRE in the early 90's - at the same time that CURRE was walking out of a liaison of some duration with HERE. Nonetheless, rumours of stateside merge crop up every now and again.

The UFCW and the Teamsters also have a strained past. The two tribes went to war over a voluntary rec deal the Teamsters cut on UFCW turf with Westfair Foods in Alberta in 1992 but it seems that relations may have improved since then. Indications are they may have found some common ground in the benefits administration area. Have the cracks in their relationship have been papered over, so to speak?

The UFCW and SEIU are happy campers, having gone so far as to sign a mutual aid agreement to keep them common cause in the event of hostile takeovers or members going over the wall. Does the relationship run deeper? Are merger plans being hatched as has been rumoured in the forum? Time will tell. Certainly there is a closeness between the two organizations and an interest on the part of both in the growing health care industry.

And those are just the strands of the web that involve other unions and then, just the ones that have come into focus so far. There are other strands emerging that lead off into other regions of organized labour. We'll have more on those later.

"Come into my parlour," said the spider to the flies...

Then there are the biz-guys, the professional "hired guns", the middlemen-administrators and arm's length union agencies that weave their own strands through the tangled web. There are the Training and Ed Funds that rake in millions, the I.F. Propco companies that loan out millions (from the CCWIPP), the hotel management company one of whose largest shareholders is the CCWIPP, the companies that line up for money, the employer reps that line up for deals, the benefit administrators and their mutual admiration societies and lavish junkets, the mostly-defunct Internet companies funded with UFCW and other unions' pension monies (www.tdu.org), the "affinity business" connected to Doug Dority's daughter the list seems endless.

Just this past week:

  • The Iffy Propco's raised their heads on our site again when it came to light that some $5 million dollars had been invested in a now-defunct meat packing company in Kitchener. Many questions revolve about these businesses (corporations in which Cliff Evans and Howard Preston, both Trustees of the CCWIPP, are officers). Why do they exist? How much money has traveled through them from the CCWIPP, where, for what purposed and at what return? Are these loans prudent investments for pension funds?
  • We brought you news of unusual disbursements - some $1.2 million worth - from the Local 777 Training and Education Funds to various lawyers and other UFCW bank accounts (see our front page).
  • An account of negotiations between the UFCW and the Save On chain for a group of gas station attendants tells us that an increase of ten cents an hour is being sought for these workers, who earn just a little over minimum wage, in each year of a four year deal. A fifteen-cent per hour worked increase, however, is being sought for contributions to the dental benefit plan. A worthy objective, but few of the part-timers covered by this agreement will ever get the 32 hours per week required to qualify for benefits. See this discussion.

What's in it for the members?

How do the members benefit from all this moving and shaking, wheeling and dealing? Well, we don't know. They don't seem to in any tangible way. The meat company got $5 million from the UFCW pension plan - its workers got pink slips. Kelloryn Hotels got $15 million dollars from the UFCW pension plan - it's workers got... the UFCW. Then they got HERE, then the Textile Processors and, finally, the UFCW again (all in the course of 4 years). Who got the better of that deal? The UFCW picked up some 6000 new members in its merger with CURRE - those workers got.... well, we'll see what they got. The Teamsters got voluntary recognition and a foot in the door in the retail food industry from Westfair - their new members got a (potentially) nine-year agreement that was so awful they wanted nothing to do with it. A million dollars of Training and Education funds was spent to purchase and office building for Local 777. What training and ed value did Local 777 members get for their million bucks? Millions of dollars of members' money or money contributed on their behalf by their employers seem to circulate around this complicated web. How any of it benefits the members is a question we've asked persistently but, to date, nobody's answering.

At the hub - the great cash nexus

What's at the hub of this tangled web? What is it that's driving this whole thing - all these relationships and transactions? The unions themselves would tell us that all this is somehow or other being done to benefit the members. But as we've said, we're not seeing how that could be. Call us cynical but what we think is at the core of the tangled web is nothing more than the great cash nexus, a concept where everything, all relationships, are defined and have meaning only in terms of economic exchange. For those of you who prefer Adam Smith, the vile maxim ("all for us and none for you") is a good fit as well. It's hard not so see the cash nexus in these union-to-union and union-to-biz guys relationships. If there's anything more to them, we hope that some knowledgeable person will explain it to us. Pending that illuminating moment, we will presume that the boys who move the money around are the ones who benefit from the interaction and transactions, whether it's arranging a merger or a loan or the presidency of a new local. The members just get to generate the capital - just like in any other business enterprise.

The Secret Subterranean Society

As complicated as it is, it's important that we unravel the tangled web and piece together the puzzle so that members and workers everywhere can see exactly what kind of a picture it presents. Why? Well, because the complex web of relationships that we've been discussing is part of what one of our visitors termed the Secret Subterranean Society of Labour Relations. The Secret-Sub-Soc is something that the average union member knows nothing about but that impacts them in very tangible ways. The relationships between unions and other unions, unions and employers, unions and their hired professionals affect everything from which union a group of workers will have to the quality of representation they receive, to the gains (or losses) that will be achieved for them at negotiations. The overall quality of life of working people is influenced by the comings and goings, the giving and taking, the singing and dancing that occurs on this shadowy level - often by players that workers aren't even aware of, much less able to influence.

The Secret Sub Soc undermines the interests of workers, is an enormous drain on resources that could otherwise be used to advance those interests and is a source of continuing embarrassment for the labour movement. Progress for service industry workers will remain stalled until workers are able to rid themselves of its influence. It's necessary to understand this subterranean world because knowledge is power.

Changing the way we think about ourselves by changing the way we talk about ourselves

We've spoken off and on over the past few months about the need to evolve a new vocabulary for union reform activism. Language - the words we use - may seem innocuous enough but in reality it does a lot to define how we see ourselves, our roles and our relationships with others. Language can limit discussion and thought by setting up artificial boundaries and firewalls. The language of labour and labour relations is filled with these. We could write a book about that statement but we won't - right now. We will in future articles and editions of the Review, talk in greater depth about the limits of language as we seek to evolve a more relevant, more empowering way of speaking about what we're doing.

As a starting point, we've decided that we will stop using the term "rank and file" in reference to workers. As much as it is a popular term in labour movement and labour reform discourse, our sense is that it conveys symbols and images that are limiting for workers and which may contribute to their sense of powerlessness. Rank and file may be an accurate reflection of workers' current status in the workplace and within their unions but that's the problem: Rank and file sounds militaristic and the military is all about obedience, subservience and deference to authority.

Our new word for workers: the Power Source. Why? Because ultimately, power comes from workers. Whether it's their productive power or their power to create or to care for or provide service to others, your organization is nowhere without them. For a business or a business union, money is power and the members provide the money. If they participate en-masse they are the power, if they don't, they give others power. No matter which way you look at the rank and file, they are the Power Source. So, you're going to see us use this term in our future communications. Try using it yourself - or whatever else you think makes sense. See if it changes the way you feel about yourself and your potential to create the kind of future you want.

Something we need to discuss

We hope that you are following (and participating in) the discussion in the forum surrounding the terrorist assault on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11th. The dialogue that has been going on since news of the tragic events reached us is reflective of the diverging points of view and as well as the common ground in our broader community as we all struggle to come to terms with what happened, what it means and where we go from here. It is important that we all think about and talk about these questions. They are not only for world leaders, terrorists and media personalities - they are for us, the power source. We need to involve ourselves in this discussion and we, here at MFD, are pleased that we can provide a venue where this can happen. Search out and create others - as many as you can. A world created by politicians, terrorists and media personalities is...the one we have now.

© 2017 Members for Democracy