• authored by Members for Democracy
  • published Sat, Mar 8, 2003

Bullshit used to Baffle our Brains

One of the problems with becoming more knowledgeable about things that affect our rights at work is that we also become more aware of the extent to which we have been played for fools. Not a day goes by it seems when we are not left shaking our heads at some crock of shit or other that's been presented to us as common sense, conventional wisdom or even logic. Profitable companies mean secure jobs. Work hard and you'll get ahead. Labour-management cooperation is good for workers. LRB's bring us justice. We have rights. The check's in the mail and pigs might as well be flying.

When our union meets our employer at bargaining time (and all the other times in between) it's the same-ole'-same-ole'. The employer gives us the standard lines, like "we need a level playing field to stay competitive". What they don't tell us is that in the free market there is no level playing field. In the corporate world, it's dog eat dog - the survival of the fittest - isn't it? The go-getters survive and the mediocre perish. We don't hire the CEO's or the top managers, so how the hell can we level the playing field?

Speaking of level playing fields, it's ironic that management comes to us cap in hand whenever the contract is up for renewal, pissing and moaning about level playing fields. There is no level playing field for us in our working lives, and especially not during a labour dispute. It seems odd that, during the one time every few years that we have the right to ask for more, we are put in a position where we will have to suffer mightily and - given our present union - almost certainly come away with less. It just doesn't add up. All these laws and processes that are supposed to help level the playing field for us make it easier for the employers to bury us.

When a labour dispute reaches a strike or lockout it is ultimately the labourers that end up behind the financial eight ball. Their source of income is severed. While on strike, the employer can save while the workers starve. Union members receive minimal picket-pay while on strike, an amount that rarely (read: never) meets their most basic needs.

It's very troubling that the legislative framework that is supposed to level the playing field somewhat for us by giving us the right to bargain collectively gives us little more than the right to starve collectively.

Employers like to have their way with labour and they'll do the damnedest things to get it. Some make no sense even from a business perspective. Consider the lockout or, as we prefer to call it, the corporate tantrum. The corporate tantrum is an odd concept if you think about it logically: An employer, in an effort to up the bottom line (profit), locks the doors, keeping the consumers out. The entire lockout premise is to apply pressure to the workers who, because of the dispute are already very unhappy, and try to force them back to their with little or no gain. The customers come first? Not when we're pissed at the staff! The only thing that makes sense about this is that, once the dispute is settled, it will be these unhappy workers who will be serving the unhappy customers. (May the profit gods be with you... Overwaitea Food Group and Canada Safeway.)

None of this stuff makes any sense. It's part of a large heaping pile of corporate bullshit aimed at making us believe that our miserable circumstances are somehow our fault. But what is even more baffling is the idiotic behaviour of our union leaders - especially those prone to throwing union tantrums. A union tantrum occurs when a union leader puts on a public display of indignation over something that he has seen coming for a long time and done nothing about, intends to do nothing about, or even, has done himself in a backroom with a circle of management guys cheering him on. These house o'labour hissy fits are particularly galling because of their hypocrisy. Case in point:

Several months ago, the government of British Columbia announced that is was planning to make some changes to the Labour Relations Act. To make it look like there was some kind of democratic thing going on, the gov embarked on a process of consultation about possible changes. The powers that are have been soliciting input from the labour relations community the employers and the unions mostly about what should be changed.

On February 21, 2003, the B.C. Business Council, ("an association representing approximately 185 large and medium-sized enterprises engaged in business in British Columbia.") made a submission to the Section 3 Committee. The business lobby group recommended, among other things, the repeal of B.C.'s anti-scab legislation (p.64), along with 13 other labour-related recommendations to further beat/compromise workers in their quest for three square meals a day.

Union leaders have been quick to condemn the proposal and rightfully so. One leader's reaction, however, is a foot-stomping, head-banging, yell-til-we're-blue-in-the-face example of a union tantrum.

UFCW Local 1518 recently reported on its web site that Canada Safeway and Overwaitea Food Group have made similar submissions in favour of repealing the provincial anti-scab legislation. The 1518 report suggests that the submission is a good indication of where the employers' heads are, at going into the 2003 OFG/Safeway/UFCW bargaining. Employers hankering for scabs in a contract year? (It must have been a slow news day at Local 1518). Local 1518's leaders are quite indignant about the proposal, as this news item from their site makes clear:

Local 1518 has made a counter submission addressing the "fairy-tale" reasoning behind the CCGD's contention that allowing Safeway and Overwaitea/Save On to hire replacement workers would some how make the whole exercise of a strike or lock out more fair. They fail to recognize that during a strike or lock out the workers go without earning wages and the employer goes without earning profits. Seems fair to us already.

The companies also ignore the fact that the use of replacement workers turns a dispute into a breeding ground for violence and insures that a strike or lock out will continue longer and be more difficult to resolve.

Safeway has had first hand experience at what happens when replacement workers are used. In the late 1990's the company had two strikes, one in BC and one in Alberta where "scabbing" is legal. The strike in BC lasted about 6 weeks while the strike in Alberta lasted about 12 weeks. The issues in both disputes were almost identical.

Why Safeway and Overwaitea/Save On would choose this particular time to pour gasoline on an already combustible situation defies all logic and intelligence.

We can't help but point out something that is both ironic and illogical in the opening sentence: The Local talks about 'fairy tale reasoning' but goes on to suggest that fairness during a strike or lockout is achieved when the workers go without earning wages and the employer goes without earning profits. You can't be serious Brooke! That's fairy tale reasoning at it's worst.

Now, before we go on, we want to make it clear that we're not suggesting that the repeal of the anti-scab law is a good thing. It's not. Scabs prolong strikes; they deprive union members of the leverage that comes from withholding their labour and generally give the employer the upper hand in bargaining. The use of scabs can promote violence and other disruptions on picket lines and it can demoralize picketers, dampening their resolve to continue with their job action.

For all of these reasons, we certainly do not support the corporate calls for legislative change that would even further diminish workers' power. What we're having a lot of time understanding however is how Local 1518's leaders can be jumping up and down about this, considering that they've already given at least one big food industry retailer something far better than any anti-scab legislation ever could. And they - the union's leaders - negotiated it and urged its ratification.

In its 1997 collective bargaining settlement with OFG's Save On Food stores, UFCW 1518 agreed to bargaining zone language.

22.02 Bargaining Protocol: It is agreed that the Union shall within the four (4) months immediately preceding March 31,2003, only deliver notice pursuant to Section 22.01 (B) of the Collective Agreement for employees within either the Zone 1 Bargaining Unit or the Zone 2 Bargaining Unit, but not both. The Union and the Employer agree that amendments negotiated for employees within the one Bargaining Unit shall apply to employees in the other Bargaining Unit. It is agreed that both Bargaining Units will never be struck or locked out at the same time during any Collective Bargaining to conclude a revision or renewal of this Agreement

The language requires that the bargaining unit be split into two zones. Only one zone is permitted to strike. Workers in the other zone are required to continue working while a strike is in progress. They are not involved in bargaining at all and must accept whatever the other zone agrees to. The union must notify the company four months in advance of which zone will be the strike zone and which zone will be the no-strike zone.

This language does more than cut the bargaining power of the members in half. It kills it completely. If we could quantify what it does to workers' power, we could say that it gives half to the employer and half to the employer. Why the hell would you want to pound the pavement on strike pay when half your brothers and sisters are required to work? Why would you get enthused about job action when you're not allowed to engage it in? How are you going to feel about your union when its leaders have decided who works and who strikes? Most importantly, what the hell kind of a settlement are you going to extract from the employer, when you've been cut off at the knees going into collective bargaining?

The Zone arrangement achieves for the employer more than it could ever get with the repeal of the no-scab law. Employers won't come right out and admit this but while they publicly defend the right to hire scabs, those who have been there know that it's nothing but a hassle from start to finish.

You've got to go out and recruit scabs or pay some outfit to do it for you so right off the top there's a cost. It's not always easy getting good workers for scab duty. The trade tends to draw a certain crowd. Once you've found them, you've got to train them. Again, more effort and more costs. Wherever you found them and no matter how good they might look, you really don't want them in important jobs, like ones that involve handling money, operating expensive equipment or jobs where they might get the inside track on secrets you'd rather your competitors don't get their hands on. Scabs tend to get unruly crossing the picket line and there are incidents that have a way of ending up in the local press. They're unreliable. You never know when you're going to have enough to keep your operation running. Worse still, they're notorious hard to manage. They know that they're with you for a good time not a long time. What are you going to do if they step out of line? Fire 'em? Even if you're able to operate indefinitely, the quality of service is going to suffer. You worry about the lost market share. Of course, publicly you would defend your right to employ scabs up one side of the golf course and down the other, privately, you know that at best they're a big hassle that sometimes creates more problems than it solves. That's why some companies close up during a strike. They'd rather not risk the problems that scabs can bring.

But thankfully, not all employers have to worry about making due with scabs anymore. If you can get yourself one of these nifty zone agreements, your worries are behind you. You have most of the benefits of using scabs without all the headaches. Since the union will give you advance notice you get of which zone will be bargaining long in advance, you can plan ahead. The ability to plan ahead is a major strategic advantage for management. Given enough lead time management can plan on how it will minimize its losses in the strike zone, how to beef up business in the non-strike zone (so as to absorb losses it might incur in stores that are struck). In the no-strike zone, they will have fully trained, dependable workers who have an ongoing relationship with the company. No matter what happens in the strike zone, they can count on staying in business and maintaining their market presence because fully one half of their operations will not be effected. As the union is likely to pick a large urban area as the strike zone (figuring that greater numbers of workers in an urban area will make a strike easier to manage and maybe higher profile), management can use that to its advantage too. It's easier to recruit scabs in the city than in smaller rural communities. Management will be better able to stay afloat in the struck market while the rest of its operations roll happily along.

Knowing that not more than half of its operations are strike-proofed, the employer can rest easy. If a strike happens, it can take heart in knowing that its profitability will not take a major hit. It's unlikely a strike will happen though: With half the bargaining unit required to keep working, who's going to get excited about pounding the pavement? The mere existence of the bargaining zones makes it less likely that the workers will strike at all.

If the government or some business lobby group suggested "bargaining zone" legislation, union leaders would be apoplectic. They'd be jumping up and down, condemning the concept as horribly unfair and disempowering and threatening Supreme Court challenges. But none of the big kahunas of labour jumped up and down when Local 1518 shoved the bargaining zones along with a package of other concessions down its members' throats in the summer of 1997. Members present at ratification don't even recall the language being discussed. They were too busy reeling from the shock of the pathetic package their representatives brought home from bargaining and insisted that they ratify. In the weeks that followed, Local 1518 president Brooke Sundin publicly defended OFG's CEO in the local media and praised him for all the new (part-time) jobs he was creating - jobs that would now be filled with new UFCW members by virtue of a voluntary rec deal. Don't believe it? Here's the proof:

Vancouver Sun, November 5, 1998, Final Edition, p.A20.Letter of the Day (Vancouver-Sun)

The most noteworthy comments in the Business section's article on the meeting of B.C.'s business leaders were those of Naomi Yamamoto (Summit spotlight turns to Pattison, Oct. 30). She indicated that Jim Pattison should be numbered among those business people in the province who "aren't the people who are creating jobs..."

Unfortunately, Ms. Yamamoto's statement is absolutely wrong.

Over the past year The Overwaitea Food Group, owned outright by Mr. Pattison, has created an estimated 1,000 new jobs in British Columbia.

In addition, it is estimated that the Overwaitea Food Group will create another 1,000 new jobs in the province over the next two years.

And how is it that Mr. Pattison accomplished this? By negotiating, with of all things, a union!

The collective agreement negotiated between Mr. Pattison's Overwaitea Food Group and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Local 1515, will create an estimate total of 2,000 new jobs, provide long-term stability for the company to grow, and at the same time provide job security for our 8,000 members employed at Overwaitea and Save On Foods stores; as well as improve their pension plan, health and welfare plan, wages and other benefits.

Mr. Pattison may not have all the ideas, or even the best ideas, needed to turn the economy around, but at least he is doing a lot more towards improving the economy through his own action, rather than just wringing hands, pointing fingers and blaming everyone else for the economic woes we face.

Brooke Sundin
UFCW Local 1518

Local 1518 isn't the only UFCW local that's given an employer strike protection beyond its wildest dreams. In another equally stupid move, a UFCW local in Ontario entered into a partnering agreement, which offered even more effective strike proofing for another big retail food employer. A secret deal with Provigo Foods was signed off in 1998 concerning a bunch of Maxi supermarkets in Ontario. Under the secret pact, the UFCW agreed that the expiry date of the collective agreement would be different for each store. These staggered dates would ensure that not more than one store was in a legal strike position at any one time. Now there's something guaranteed to negate the workers' collective might. Why'd they do it? Voluntary rec. Need we say more?

If the government suggested that agreements at chain operations had to have staggered expiry dates, union leaders would be plastered on the ceilings of their offices, such would be their indignation. But when union leaders trade away their members' bargaining power for voluntary rec or whatever other wreck it's OK. There's some good fairy tale reasoning if we've ever heard any.

It's bad enough that we're fed piles of BS by corporations. It's a lot worse when our representatives are busy feeding us their own pile. There is power in big says UFCW Canadian Director Michael Fraser in a flyer circulated to members UFCW's effort to sway memberships vote on a proposed merger of Ontario brewery locals. Well, what's all this bigness got us so far Mike?

If Sundin and Fraser want union members to take them seriously when they rail against laws that disempower workers, they can start by tearing up the disempowering deals they've made themselves. Until then, they should shut their hypocritical mouths and hang their heads in shame.

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