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  • authored by Members for Democracy
  • published Sat, Oct 13, 2001

Sweethearts or Biz-Unions?

The second installment in our series about the Swiss Chalet workers (Canada's largest unionized group of restaurant workers - currently members of UFCW Local 206) came out this week. What about that CURRE? The little union that staked out a big turf wasted no time making its turf almost impenetrable. With a little help from the employer (which didn't seem to like other unions all that much) it got a great big province-wide bargaining unit and a voluntary rec arrangement that would make it virtually impossible for other unions to raid it or for its members to escape. With this big piece o' turf and a membership roster that was sure to grow as the company opened new stores, CURRE's exec got busy - taking care of itself. From what we've learned CURRE didn't have exec board elections, it hiked up union dues by 300% over a three-year period and went to some lengths to fix up its constitution to allow for speedy mergers. And how about that Bill Whyte - CURRE's General Manager? He had a business on the side with management guys, he shopped the marketplace for merger opportunities, he appointed friends and relatives to the executive board, he set up a consulting firm that sponged up about one-third of the union's dues revenue for him and his wife. A benefits admin company run by his girlfriend (a former company official) popped up pretty quickly. Although he held no elected position, from all appearances, he ran the show. And the members...well, they didn't seem to figure in the picture all that much. Why on earth should they?

The whole thing is sickening. Who out there with an ounce of compassion for working people could not help but feel a certain queasiness about this whole situation? It just seems so brazen, so callous. Well, here's something else to get queasy about then: As repugnant as CURRE's actions and those of its officials appear, how do they differ, really, from what's going on within today's biz-unions? The escape-proof bargaining units, the partnering agreements, the side-businesses run by the friends and relatives of the high and mighty - aren't we talking about the same thing? It's easy to dislike the enterprising Mr. Whyte but we've got to ask ourselves, how does he differ from the dozens of opportunists who hold lofty positions within the mainstream unions? We suggest that the only discernible difference is that Whyte never joined the mainstream labour country club. To a certain extent, that actually makes him a somewhat less despicable character - at least he doesn't score as high on the hypocrisy meter as some of his CLC-approved counterparts.

Was CURRE a sweetheart or a biz-union? There doesn't appear to be much difference between the two. The definitions are different but the actions are the same. It's not uncommon for established orders to apply good/bad labels to essentially the same activities depending on whether the perpetrator is friend or foe. The labour country club does much the same thing: If it's screwing its members and it doesn't' belong to our club, then it's a sweetheart and that's bad. If it's screwing its members and its one of our own, it's a union with a business union philosophy and it's not up to us to pass judgment. We must be supportive.

The practice of labeling things and people as either good or bad for doing essentially the same things is commonplace among ruling orders. What makes the Swiss Chalet Workers' story very meaningful is that it allows us to view the biz activities of biz-unions clearly so that we can see them for what they really are.

We can hardly wait to find out how well these workers have fared under the UFCW - given all the cultural similarities between the Voice of Working America and CURRE. Maybe if we put enough trash on the curb, the mainstream will finally stop holding its nose and encourage its "good unions" to clean up their acts.

Nepotism for fun and profit

Speaking of unions that look like CURRE, UFCW local 777 was in the news again this past week. Triple seven looks a lot like CURRE in a whole bunch of different ways. The Local itself was hatched to satisfy an employer that wanted a competitive advantage (at least that's what a company official said in his sworn affidavit). It went on to ink pathetic collective agreements, it did deals behind its members' backs, its funds seemed to be flowing this way and that - to places where members have no right to tread, it didn't have executive elections, family members of high ranking officials ended up on its exec, just like CURRE. Oh...and speaking of family members of the high ranking...

We wonder how much UFCW members are dishing out to relocate Anny Kukovica-Goodman (daughter of Tom - the former National leader) and her new hubby Dan to their jobs at Local 777. Now we want to point out before we go any further that there's nothing illegal about nepotism but just because it isn't illegal doesn't make it right. As far as unions go, nepotism ought to be right off the screen. Why do unions bargain job-posting language into collective agreements anyway? Because it isn't fair that jobs should be filled by managers' friends and relatives right? Right. OK, maybe Anny and Danny just happened to get their new jobs fair and square through some fair and objective recruitment process, but then again, maybe they didn't. Maybe the Kukovica-Goodman's got these jobs because well,, um they just wanted to move to the west coast and it would be handy if they had jobs once they got there. We'll have a double order of nepotism with a side of hypocrisy.

Then there's the whole issue of the cost savings that were supposed to be realized with the merger of Locals 777 and 2000. As one of our forum contributors rightly pointed out - the new local seems to be awash in a sea of well-paid officials, now more than ever. We hope the members are feeling that they're getting value for their money - and that the Kukovica-Goodman's are happy in their new digs.

Choice is a cool thing and we're talking about it...

Our forum was the scene of some discussion this week about - gasp! - changing unions. This subject is such a taboo in labour circles. There is this tired old rationale that changing unions - no matter how dissatisfied a group of members may be - is just not right. It's bad for the labour movement, it's sinful. It's OK for the union honchos to "choose" to make all kinds of decisions that involve "change" of one kind or another for their members. It's OK to cook up a merger, it's OK to bargain away their entitlements, it's OK to suspend a them from membership, it's OK to dump their grievances, it's OK to sue them for speaking their minds, it's OK to loan out their money to management, but when the members want to choose, well that's just not on. Signing a membership card is forever - or at least until the great ones decide they don't want you anymore. It's time we snap out of this feudal mindset. Its time is coming anyway. We doubt that the Power Source of the future is gong to have much time for it. Tell me I'm stuck with you forever and I'll think twice about getting stuck with you in the first place. We are not by any means advocating that "no union" is an option for the Power Source, what we're advocating is "good union" ("good" as defined by the Power Source) or "union of your choice". It's remarkable the misinformation that is fed to the Power Source about this fairly simple and very democratic concept.

More Radical Talk

This week's forum also saw some straight up discussion about the no-win situation in which the UFCW finds itself in the retail food business. Having ratcheted down wages and reduced full time jobs to little more than a memory, the mega-union has inadvertently created the conditions for its own extinction. Bargaining for the bottom is not a trend that can easily be reversed. Low wages and weak unions bring in competitors - like the virulently anti-union Walmart. Efforts at organizing the American mega-retailer have fallen flat. What a surprise that is - what on earth can they offer its workers? An opportunity to finance the lifestyles of union leaders and their children? Hey, let's all join up! Maybe its time for a new kind of union or a new kind of unionism for the retail industry.

In the very least it's time for some new ideas around what unions can do for workers in this industry. We're not sure that we've heard anything that would qualify as "new" or "innovative" come out of the mainstream in decades, except excuses.

Here's something from a labour-friendly source at the University of Maine about the kinds of "benefits" that unions may want to consider putting on the bargaining table. This article talks about concepts such as on-site daycare as workplace benefits that may appeal to and win the support of the increasing number of workers for whom affordable childcare is essential but often very difficult to find.

Makes some sense doesn't it? The demographics of the workforce have changed dramatically in the last 3 or 4 decades but bargaining strategy and perceptions about what's important to workers have not. In case you don't believe us we'll leave off with this Toronto Star article, which we think illustrates our point. Have a look at what our favorite biz-union bargained for this mostly female bargaining unit. Now that's looking to the future with your head up your butt!

The Toronto Star Tuesday, November 17, 1992

New pact could pay women less, analyst says

By Leslie Papp Toronto Star

An unorthodox new collective agreement at Maple Lodge Farms linking workers' income to attendance may leave women earning less, warns a labor observer.

In a two-year deal reached over the weekend, about 1,000 unionized workers at the Brampton-area poultry processing plant received a wage freeze.

In return, they got an incentive system rewarding good attendance with a bonus every three months. Each lump-sum payment would represent 20 cents for every hour worked over those three months. People absent for more than two days would lose that money.

"It's designed to minimize casual absenteeism," said Wayne Hanley, secretary-treasurer elect of Local 175, United Food and Commercial Workers.

But Desmond Morton, principal at University of Toronto's Erindale campus and a labor observer, said women are less likely than men to get the attendance bonus.

In a time of family crisis, when a child falls ill, for example, it is usually a woman who must stay home, rendering her absent from work and sacrificing her bonus, he said.

Most of the labor force at Maple Lodge Farms is composed of immigrant women, and many are single mothers.

'Vulnerable work force'

"I am concerned about women facing a family crisis," Morton said. "This is a pretty vulnerable work force."

Hanley said the union and management have developed a list of circumstances providing for "allowable absence."

The list includes a dentist appointment, provided the company gets advance notice, and legitimate sick days. He conceded a child's illness is not included.

"It would be impossible to forecast every possible situation," he said.

Both sides will review cases as they arise and management has promised to be reasonable, Hanley added.

Maple Lodge Farms president Larry May said his company will be "flexible," noting that most of the firm's 1,000 workers were on the job yesterday and happy to be back.

"Morale was pretty positive," he said. "Our intent is not to hold any grudges."

Morton, however, said protection for women facing family crisis should be included in the collective agreement. "A verbal agreement ain't worth the paper it's written on," he quipped.

While unusual, the attendance bonus system at Maple Lodge Farms isn't unique, Hanley said.

A similar plan exists for workers in at least one other meat packing plant represented by the union, he said.

He described the use of the provision as "in its infancy" and predicted it would gradually be picked up by other unions and employers.

But Joe Rose, McMaster University professor and specialist in collective agreements, said the Maple Lodge Farms deal is unlikely to spark a trend.

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