Fair Contracts (or Fair Collective Agreements): The Ideological Rhetoric of Canadian Unions, Part One

Since in this blog I have often referred to particular union reps referring to collective agreements as fair in some way, I thought it would be useful to provide further examples of this rhetoric to substantiate the view that unions function as ideologues for the continued existence of employers–even if the unions are independent of the power of particular employers and hence represent independently the workers in relation to the particular employer of the workers.

I will provide a series of examples from various unions in this series on their view of the fairness of collective agreements and collective bargaining, implied or expressed explicitly.

1. Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE)

  1. On February 20, 2020, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) published the following on its website (https://cupe.ca/union-offers-better-contingency-plan-city-toronto-negotiate-fair-contract).

Following the City of Toronto’s announcement on contingency plans for a possible labour disruption, CUPE 416 offered their own plan, one that respects all parties: negotiate a fair contract and avoid a labour dispute.

Nowhere does the webpage indicate what is meant by ‘fair contract.” The complaint against the City of Toronto as employer in relation to collective bargaining seems to have to do with the implied bad faith in bargaining–hence the reference to ‘respects all parties.” It is implied that the City of Toronto’s bargaining team does not respect the other party–the negotiating team and, by implication, the city of Toronto’s unionized workers. If only the city’s negotiating team would engage in real negotiations rather than aiming for a labour dispute from the beginning, then a fair contract could arise, it is implied:

“How does the City Manager stand up there and say the City respects its workers and looks out for the best interests of residents when they have been driving these talks toward a deadline and a dispute from the beginning?” said Eddie Mariconda, president of CUPE 416.

It is never questioned how treating human beings as costs could indicate an unfair situation as such:

 “They say that they want a contract that is affordable and sustainable. 416 members are already affordable and sustainable, and we deliver great services too.

City of Toronto workers are affordable–their costs are “reasonable.” How treating workers as costs is reasonable is never explained–it is assumed. Treating workers as costs reduces human beings to mere means to ends defined by others (see The Money Circuit of Capital).

It should be noted that CUPE is the largest Canadian union (from https://cupe.ca/cupe-largest-union-canada-and-we-keep-growing):

Canada’s largest labour union keeps on growing as today we announce our membership has reached 680,000 workers nationwide.

2. In the Collective Bargaining section of the CUPE website (https://cupe.ca/collective-bargaining) , we read:

Negotiating strong contracts for our members is what we do best. The solidarity of our members is the heart of our bargaining power, and makes gains possible. Together, we’ve built strong communities and achieved better wages, benefits, pensions and fair treatment, for workers.

It is implied that it is possible to be treated fairly despite the existence of the employer-employee relation. If, however, the employer-employee relation is inherently unfair, then CUPE’s reference to fair treatment (by means of, probably, collective bargaining and collective agreements) in effect justifies the continued oppression and exploitation of workers. After all, if workers are indeed fairly treated by means of collective bargaining, collective agreements and the existence of unions, then there is no need to aim for the abolition of the class power of employers. Furthermore, workers who work in unionized environments who still consider their treatment by the employer to be unfair–despite such treatment not breaching the collective agreement–would logically be subject to criticism by union reps or at least indifference.

3. On CUPE Local 79, it reads http://cupelocal79.org/bargaining/ (of course, this link may no longer exist once a collective agreement has been signed):

CUPE Local 79 is entering into negotiations with the City of Toronto in late 2019 as the four collective agreements expire on December 31, 2019. Our union is seeking a fair deal for City of Toronto employees who work hard every day to take care of Toronto.

4. Another webpage (https://cupe.on.ca/marchingforfairness/ ) has the following (no date):

We are asking the March of Dimes to support us in the work that we do by negotiating a fair contract that respects the residents of March of Dimes Independent Living and the support workers who empower them to live independent lives. Help us by sending a message to the March of Dimes to ask them to negotiate a fair contract of support service attendants.

5. Dated November 16, 2020, the following post implies that unionized workers not only desire fair treatment but actually obtained it by means of collective bargaining and the collective agreement (https://cupe.ca/new-collective-agreement-garda-employees):

New collective agreement for Garda employees

This Monday, the Syndicat des employé.e.s du transport de valeurs et des salles de comptage de Garda (SNCF-SCFP 3812) signed a new six-year collective agreement, which calls for wage increases of 14% for the period between 2018 to 2024.

“The union achieved the objectives it wanted, particularly with respect to salaries and full retroactivity for all employees and major adjustments to schedules and statutory holidays. We have adjusted to the health crisis and have held virtual general meetings, including a vote. The agreement achieved 73.5% support, reflective of the excellent work done by the bargaining committee,” declared Jocelyn Tremblay, a CUPE union representative and trustee of SNCF-SCFP 3812.

In addition to maintaining and even improving their purchasing power, the union is particularly proud of regaining several things they had negotiated after rejecting an initial tentative agreement in April 2019. The employees subsequently voted more than 83% in favour of resorting to pressure tactics up to and including an unlimited general strike.

“This mobilization on the part of employees enabled us to be heard at the bargaining table. These people showed management that they wanted a fair agreement in line with the efforts made on a daily basis for the company,” added CUPE union representative Marcin Kazmierczak.

SNCF-SCFP 3812 represents slightly more than 1000 members.

6. On June 30, 2020, we read, from the National President’s Report (https://cupe.ca/national-presidents-report-june-2020):

The only sector presently bargaining with government is the health care sector. At that table, the government’s opening proposals included eliminating any retroactivity for wages beyond the April 1, 2020 effective date. This was rejected and CUPE will continue to fight for a fair collective agreement [my emphasis] and a strong pension plan.

7. On August 21, 2020, we read (https://cupe.on.ca/solidarity-with-port-of-montreal-longshore-workers-cupe-ontario-salutes-the-announcement-of-a-truce/):

CUPE Ontario’s 280,000 members salute the announcement of a truce agreed to today between striking longshore workers at the Port of Montreal, members of CUPE Local 375, and the Maritime Employers Association (MEA). Both parties announced during a joint press conference that they believe they can come to a negotiated collective agreement during the truce which will end on March 20, 2021.

On August 10th, the 1,125 longshore workers began strike action to defend their collective agreement after the employer, MEA, unilaterally changed working conditions.

The workers’ previous collective agreement expired on December 31, 2018 and, instead of negotiating a fair agreement [my emphasis], the employer had been attacking workers’ rights, threatening the use of replacement workers, and diverting ships to other ports, including those outside of Canada.

The MEA spent months attacking workers’ rights in the courts, making the case that all members of CUPE Local 375, working at the Port of Montreal, should not have the right to strike. But the longshore workers fought back, and the Canada Industrial Relations Board upheld their existing strike rights. This was an important victory, not only for longshore workers at the Port of Montreal, but for all working people in Canada.

Since the beginning of the strike, CUPE Local 375 members have offered to unload and move all cargo linked to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure community safety. Despite this, the employer has tried to use the pandemic as an excuse to threaten the use of replacement workers, otherwise known as scabs. This week, when it looked like the employer was going to enact the threat, the Local mobilized with other unions for mass solidarity picket which caused the employer to back down.

CUPE Ontario will act in steadfast solidarity with CUPE Local 375 until the parties reach a fair collective agreement that treats the Port of Montreal longshore workers with the respect they deserve. The members of CUPE Ontario will continue offering support and resources to defend Local 375 members’ rights and protect working conditions.

Fred Hahn, President

Candace Rennick, Secretary-Treasurer

It may seem inappropriate to criticize those who defend workers from attacks of employers. Attacks from particular employers or a group of employers do indeed need to be criticized, and to that extent Fred Hahn’s and Candace Resnick’s critique of the Maritime Employers Association should be praised. On the other hand, the reference to “fair agreement” needs to be criticized. 

8. On November 4, 2019, we read (http://cupe1764.ca/help-brampton-caledon-community-living-workers-get-a-fair-contract/): 

Help Brampton-Caledon Community Living workers get a fair contract

We are the members of CUPE 966. We work hard every day to provide the quality care at Brampton-Caledon Community Living (BCCL). It can be difficult work, but we do it because we care about the individuals we support, and we love to make a difference for them and their families.

BCCL is attempting to make our jobs even more difficult by keeping workers in precarious, part-time positions. We just want to negotiate a fair contract that respects our physically demanding work and protects the services we provide. We believe that no worker should see their working conditions reduced. We do not want a strike, but we are being pushed that way.

Help us continue to provide quality care to the individuals we support by telling BCCL to negotiate a fair contract now! [my emphasis]

It may seem even more inappropriate to criticize those workers who are experiencing an attack by an employer. However, where does their idea of a “fair contract” come from? Have they been indoctrinated by CUPE (and other unions)? Do they really consider it possible to obtain a fair contract? Even if they do, what is their view of management rights? 

9. On another CUPE webpage, we read (https://cupe.on.ca/somethingspecial/):

10. We read, on December 2, 2015 (https://cupe2544.ca/with-deadline-looming-warden-woods-needs-to-get-serious-about-negotiating-a-fair-contract/): 

With deadline looming, Warden Woods needs to ‘get serious’ about negotiating a fair contract

With a strike deadline of December 13 rapidly approaching, the union representing workers at Warden Woods Community Centre urged management to ‘get serious’ about negotiating a fair collective agreement. [my emphasis]

“For more than a year, our members have been trying to negotiate a fair first contract [my emphasis] with Warden Woods, but I am extremely concerned that management needs to get serious about finishing the job,” said Barbara Garcia, President of Local 5218 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE 5218).

“The community depends on, and expects, the vital services our members provide. We’re committed to this community, but Warden Woods’ management needs to demonstrate their commitment to getting the job done.

CUPE 5218 has been in negotiations with Warden Woods for over a year. While some progress towards securing a first contract has taken place, several items remain outstanding. Additionally, staff have not had a wage increase in eight years.

The countdown to a lockout or strike began when Warden Woods’ management declared an impasse last month.

“We are prepared to bargain for as long as it takes to secure a fair contract, but the employer’s actions have set us on a fast track to a work stoppage, unless they get serious about finishing the job of negotiating with us,” said Garcia.

“We have been extremely reasonable in offering good faith solutions we believe are fair to our members [my emphasis], protect vital public services the community depends on, and ensure the long-term viability of Warden Woods,” she added.

Warden Woods is a multi-service community agency based in Scarborough providing supports to seniors, youth and children. The 44 members of CUPE 5218 provide a wide range of programming and services at the main office, several satellite locations, and in people’s homes.

For more information, please contact:

Barbara Garcia
CUPE 5218 President
416-725-4437

Kevin Wilson
CUPE Communications
416-821-6641

The use of the term “fair” in “fair contract,” “fair treatment,” and “fair deal” is not accidental. The implication is that the goal of collective bargaining must not just to achieve a contract or collective agreement–but a fair contract or agreement. The goal of reaching a collective agreement is qualified constantly by the adjective “fair.” The natural question would be: In what way is it fair? What is meant by a “fair contract,” etc.?

Nowhere does CUPE explain what it means by a fair collective agreement or how it is possible given the power of employers as a class. Why is that? Why is it that the union often qualifies the contract or collective agreement as “fair?” Is it by accident, or is it a means to “sell” the collective agreement to its members?

Would it be more in the interests of workers to point out that the collective agreement is unfair–but it is the best that can be obtained under the circumstances (the power structure that currently exists)? Or would it be better to merely express the rhetoric of fair contracts, etc. without discussing what is meant by that?

Which is a reformist tactic? A tactic in the best interests of workers?

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