Fair Contracts or Collective Agreements: The Ideological Rhetoric of Canadian Unions, Part Four: The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) (The Second Largest Union in Canada)

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 have already provided a series of examples in this series on their view of the fairness of collective agreements and collective bargaining, implied or expressed explicitly, specifically the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) (the largest union in Canada) and Unifor (the largest union of workers who work for employers in the private sector) (see Fair Contracts (or Fair Collective Agreements): The Ideological Rhetoric of Canadian Unions, Part One and Fair Contracts or Collective Agreements: The Ideological Rhetoric of Canadian Unions, Part Three: Unifor (Largest Private Union in Canada)).

I now proceed to provide evidence for the ideological role of The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE), which was, in 2015, the second largest union in Canada, with 360,000 members.

  1. The following is dated December 15, 2011 https://ww.nupge.ca/content/opseu-developmental-service-workers-demand-fair-contract):

Members of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU/NUPGE) who work at Montage Support Services voted 100 per cent in favour of strike action if the employer refuses to offer a fair contract at the bargaining table [my emphasis].

The employer has proposed a large reduction to the payment of benefit premiums for full-time workers, unreasonable increases in probationary periods for new hires, language that would dismiss a worker for missing a single shift and increasing the length of time that discipline can be imposed. The Union is asking for pay equalization for its members who do equal amounts of work and only very small wage increases to offset the cost of living.

2. Dated September 6, 2012: The following is taken from https://nupge.ca/content/campaign-launched-support-women-working-elizabeth-fry-toronto-negotiate-contract

Toronto (06 Sept. 2012) – Workers at Elizabeth Fry Toronto have been without a contract since March 31, 2011. The employer is insisting on concessions that will cut benefits and job security for casual and contract workers.

The Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU/NUPGE), the union which represents the workers, is encouraging the concerned public to contact Elizabeth Fry Toronto’s executive director Michelle Coombs with the message, “stand up for women at Elizabeth Fry Toronto!”

These workers have been trying to negotiate a fair and reasonable contract for over 15 months. [my emphasis]

3. Dates 2014 (https://nupge.ca/content/mgeu-members-uwsa-heading-conciliation-amid-concessionary-bargaining):

MGEU members at UWSA heading to conciliation amid concessionary bargaining

MGEU/NUPGE members hope conciliation will help achieve a fair and reasonable settlement.

Winnipeg (14 April 2014) — Members of the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union (MGEU/NUPGE) who work at the University of Winnipeg Students’ Association have requested the help of a conciliation officer to reach a new contract.

UWSA looking for major concessions in bargaining

Members began negotiations with UWSA Inc. on February 12, 2014. However, it was immediately clear from the employer’s proposals that they were intent on attacking the rights of workers covered by the collective agreement.

Among the many proposed cuts to benefits and changes inn contract language, the UWSA is seeking to remove maternity leave top-up, respite days, and bereavement leave travel time. At the same time, they want to increase hours of work and reduce sick leave and vacation benefits. The employer’s representatives have defined this process as “normalizing” or “resetting” the current contract. MGEU/NUPGE negotiators say it represents the elimination of years of hard work and fair negotiation by severely weakening the rights of members covered by this agreement. [my emphasis]

Looking to conciliation for assistance in reaching a fair deal

In response, the MGEU/NUPGE bargaining committee presented a package to the employer on April 9, identifying what members felt was a fair deal [my emphasis]. The employer rejected the deal that same day and asked if the union members would be willing to submit a joint request for conciliation. MGEU/NUPGE representatives agreed and both parties made separate applications to the Minister of Labour and Immigration to appoint a conciliation officer to help reach a new collective agreement.

The date for conciliation has been tentatively set for April 24.

NUPGE

The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada’s largest labour organizations with over 340,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. NUPGE

NUPGE Components

4. Dated October 13, 2015 (https://ww.nupge.ca/content/gawronsky-delivers-%E2%80%9Cstill-without-contract%E2%80%9D-petitions-provincial-ministers). The following attributes to members the desire for a fair collective agreement. It is of course possible that members do attribute fairness to a collective agreement–but it is possible that they may not. Union leaders may simply ascribe–falsely–their own beliefs to the beliefs of the members. Furthermore, even if most members did believe that a collective agreement was fair, did they discuss the issue thoroughly in order to have an informed judgement? Did they discuss whether it was fair to work for employers in general? Did they discuss why workers have to work for employers? If not, should there not be such discussion before claiming that union members want a fair contract? 

Gawronsky delivers “Still Without a Contract” petitions to provincial ministers

“MGEU members have been very frustrated by the government’s ongoing foot dragging in negotiations.” — Michelle Gawronsky, MGEU President

Michelle Gawronsky (centre) presents Greg Dewar, Minister of Finance, and Kerri Irvin-Ross, Minister responsible for the Civil Service, with the MGEU’s “Still Without a Contract” petition signatures.

Winnipeg (13 Oct. 2015) — This past summer the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union (MGEU/NUPGE) turned up the heat on the provincial government to get a fair deal for thousands of its members who have been without a contract for more than a year — and, in some cases, more than two years. [my emphasis]

Members want a fair and reasonable offer

“MGEU members have been very frustrated by the government’s ongoing foot dragging in negotiations. It’s been an issue at our largest table (Civil Service), as well as at many other bargaining tables,” says MGEU President Michelle Gawronsky.

“Members are tired of it. They want to see some action; they want to see a fair and reasonable offer.” [my emphasis]

Strong support for online petition

In response, the MGEU developed an online petition this summer, collecting 5,787 signatures in support.

On October 9, 2015, Gawronsky and MGEU 1st Vice-President Wayne Chacun, delivered those petition signatures to Greg Dewar, Minister of Finance, and Kerri Irvin-Ross, Minister responsible for the Civil Service (both pictured above), as well as to Erna Braun, Minister of Labour and Immigration, and Drew Caldwell, Minister of Municipal Government.

“The government has said they’re willing to return to the Civil Service bargaining table. But returning to the table, and returning to the table with a fair and reasonable offer, are two very different things and it’s our job to make sure that message is sent loud and clear.”

NUPGE

The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada’s largest labour organizations with over 360,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. NUPGE

5. Dated August 18, 2017   (https://ww.nupge.ca/content/nsgeu-members-sherbrooke-village-rally-fair-contract-0):  

NSGEU members at Sherbrooke Village rally for fair contract

“They are proud to be part of the fabric of the local community and the nearby counties. It’s time their hard work and dedication to their jobs be acknowledged with a fair collective agreement.” — Jason MacLean, NSGEU President [my emphasis]

Halifax (18 Aug. 2017) — The people who help bring Sherbrooke Village to life for residents and visitors to come, learn, and explore the history of this community held an information picket at the entrance gate to Sherbrooke Village on August 17. 

Sherbrooke Restoration Commission hasn’t addressed members concerns at bargaining table

 As members of the Nova Scotia Government & General Employees Union (NSGEU/NUPGE), they wanted to raise awareness of their fight for a fair contract with their employer.

“Our members provide a one-of-a-kind, authentic historical experience for visitors to the area with their historical knowledge and skills,” says Jason MacLean, NSGEU President. “They are proud to be part of the fabric of the local community and the nearby counties. It’s time their hard work and dedication to their jobs be acknowledged with a fair collective agreement.” [my emphasis]

The 73 members work in administration, historical interpretation, costumes, crafts, marketing and promotions, trades, security, and maintenance, and many other occupations at the Village.

The Sherbrooke Restoration Commission, the employer, put forward a final offer at the bargaining table on July 20 without addressing many of the members’ concerns.

The NSGEU/NUPGE filed for conciliation and both sides met with a Conciliation Officer on August 16. 

6. Dated November 2, 2017 (https://ww.nupge.ca/content/new-brunswick-union-supports-introduction-first-contract-arbitration): 

New Brunswick Union supports introduction of first contract arbitration

We applaud government for coming forward with these changes. We believe this is a reasonable approach, one that will help both employers and workers alike.” — Susie Proulx-Daigle, NBU President

Fredericton (02 Nov. 2017) — The New Brunswick Union (NBU/NUPGE) is pleased to see that the provincial government has committed to bringing changes to the Industrial Relations Act to usher in first contract arbitration.

First contract arbitration will no longer allow management to prolong negotiations

In New Brunswick, arbitrations are not available to unions seeking a first contract if a deal cannot be reached with management.

First contract negotiations are often prolonged, so having the legal ability to use an independent third party to help resolve outstanding issues will help both the employer and union negotiate a fair first contract in a timely manner. [my emphasis]

The NBU/NUPGE has been pushing for this change for quite some time. During its most recent biennial convention, delegates voted unanimously in favour of a resolution for the union to advocate legislation on first contract arbitration.

The change would bring New Brunswick in line with the rest of the country, with the exception of Prince Edward Island.

“We applaud government for coming forward with these changes,” said Susie Proulx-Daigle, NBU President. “We believe this is a reasonable approach, one that will help both employers and workers alike.”

7. This is taken from a June 11, 2018 post (https://ww.nupge.ca/content/workers-vote-strike-gateway-okanagan-casinos-bcgeu): 

Workers vote to strike at Gateway Okanagan Casinos: BCGEU

An astounding 93.1 per cent vote in favour of strike action.

Vancouver (11 June 2018) — Over 675 members of the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union (BCGEU/NUPGE) working at Gateway Casinos in the Okanagan voted overwhelmingly in favour of taking strike action against their employer.

In a vote held from June 4 to 6, over 88 per cent of Gateway staff in casinos in Kelowna, Kamloops, Penticton and Vernon came out and voted 93.1 per cent in favour of taking strike action.

“Gateway workers in the Okanagan are sending a clear message to their employer: they will not settle for less than the fair wages, benefits and respect they deserve,” says Stephanie Smith, BCGEU President. [my emphasis]

Gateway Casino refuses to offer comparable wages

Negotiations for a new collective agreement broke off in May after the employer refused to offer wages and benefits that are industry standard at comparable casinos.

Smith says the employer’s offer is unacceptable. “The wages Gateway are offering won’t even keep ahead of the planned minimum wage increases.”

“These workers are the heart of their casinos. Gateway is a successful company in a highly profitable industry — they can afford to pay their workers what they are worth.”

Workers just want a fair contract

Strike preparations are now underway, and workers are set to walk off the job unless they receive a new proposal from the employer. 

“Gateway Casino workers in the Okanagan are ready to do whatever it takes to get a fair contract with their employer — including strike, if necessary,” says Smith. [my emphasis]

Gateway’s Okanagan staff have been trying to negotiate a new collective agreement since the last one expired in September 2017. 

8. Like an earlier reference, the following claims that the members are seeking a fair agreement–a debatable claim. Dated August 2, 2018 (https://ww.nupge.ca/content/strike-mandate-given-sgeus-public-servicegovernment-employment-negotiating-committee): 

Strike mandate given to SGEU’s Public Service/Government Employment Negotiating Committee

Upon returning to the bargaining table, the government was unwilling to negotiate. It was their unwillingness that brought about the need for a strike vote.

Regina (02 Aug. 2018) —  Saskatchewan Government and General Employees’ Union (SGEU/NUPGE) members of the Public Service/Government Employment (PS/GE) bargaining unit have given their Negotiating Committee a strike mandate. The vote was conducted across the province throughout July.

SGEU/NUPGE public service members looking for fair agreement

“This mandate sends a strong, clear message to government that our members are serious about achieving a fair and reasonable collective agreement that protects their rights and improves their wages and benefits,” said Barry Nowoselsky, Chair of the PS/GE Negotiating Committee. [my emphasis]

“A mandate from the members to strike does not mean there will be immediate job action. The negotiating committee is willing to return to the bargaining table as long as the employer is willing to negotiate,” he added.

Agreement expired in 2016

The collective agreement covering approximately 12,000 workers, including social workers, wildfire fighters, highways workers, lab technicians, administrative professionals, agrologists, corrections officers, and many others, expired September 30, 2016.

Bargaining for a new contract for government employees began in October 2016. In February 2018, members were asked to vote on a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA). The tentative deal was rejected in April. Upon returning to the bargaining table, the government was unwilling to negotiate. It was their unwillingness that brought about the need for a strike vote.

“Hopefully, with this mandate, government will now return to the bargaining table ready to show they value the work performed by people who live and work right here in our province,” Nowoselsky said.

9. The following is dated September 14, 2018:   (https://ww.nupge.ca/content/new-contract-nbu-college-instructors): 

New contract for NBU College Instructors

“Negotiations are successful when both sides come to the table with mutual respect and a willingness to work together.” — Susie Proulx-Daigle, NBU President

Bathurst (14 Sept. 2018) — Instructors in the Collège communautaire du Nouveau-Brunswick system, represented by the New Brunswick Union (NBU/NUPGE), officially signed a new contract on September 7, 2018, during a ceremony in Bathurst. Instructors with CCNB educate and prepare students for careers in a variety of areas. Instructors are located on 5 different campuses across the province.

The newly signed collective agreement is for 5 years and 3 months covering the time period of May 1, 2015, through July 31, 2020. The terms and conditions of the contract came into effect upon signing. Membership had voted in favour of the deal on May 22, 2018.

A fair deal for both sides

“Negotiations are successful when both sides come to the table with mutual respect and a willingness to work together,” said NBU President Susie Proulx-Daigle. “That was the case during this round of bargaining, and I’m pleased we’ve come away with a fair deal for both sides.” [my emphasis]

10. The following is dated October 18, 2019 (https://ww.nupge.ca/content/nsgeu-calls-mcneil-govt-respect-collective-bargaining).  Of course, the McNeil government’s heavy-handed tactics should be criticized (I l already indicated that in one of my articles that in the ??? section of this blog–but not by claiming that the process of collective bargaining represents something fair or that the resulting  collective agreement in any way expresses something fair. 

NSGEU calls on McNeil govt. to respect collective bargaining

“By continuing to meddle with this long-standing practice, the McNeil government threatens to throw the already-overwhelmed legal system into chaos.” — Jason MacLean, NSGEU President

Ottawa (18 Oct. 2019) — The Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union (NSGEU/NUPGE) is deeply disappointed to see the McNeil government once again employing heavy-handed tactics to skew the collective bargaining process in their own favour.

On Wednesday, October 16, Finance Minister Karen Casey introduced essential services legislation that takes away Crown attorneys’ right to arbitration and replaces it with the “right to strike.” The NSGEU/NUPGE argues that this harms workers and the services they deliver.

All workers have the right to collective bargaining

The NSGEU/NUPGE does not represent Crown attorneys. But, it unequivocally support the rights of all workers to bargain free from government interference that will unfairly tilt the process in favour of either the employer or employee.

“Collective bargaining is a deliberate process that is designed to yield a fair and balanced outcome,” said NSGEU President Jason MacLean. “By continuing to meddle with this long-standing practice, the McNeil government threatens to throw the already-overwhelmed legal system into chaos.” [My emphases]

Legislation could have ripple effect on other public sector workers

Furthermore, this only serves to put all other unions representing public sector workers on notice that this government is still squarely opposed to bargaining in good faith, setting a negative tone for all upcoming contract negotiations.

“We’ve seen government make similar arguments about many other important public sector workers in this province: health care and home care workers, and doctors,” MacLean said. “These continued attacks have negatively impacted recruitment and have pushed health care into crisis, leaving important public services in peril.”

The NSGEU/NUPGE is calling on this government to withdraw the legislation it has tabled to interfere with the Crown attorneys’ bargaining process, and to begin to bargain in good faith. It is only when the government begins to respect the process that we can achieve labour peace.

Political Implications

Unions evidently use the rhetoric of fair contracts, fair agreements and the like to justify their limited approach to the issues facing workers. This attempt to justify their own implicit acceptance of the power of the class of employers needs to be constantly criticized by being brought out into the open and discussed. 

However, the social-democrat or social-reformist left often see no point in such open and direct criticism–despite claims to the contrary. 

I will conclude this post with a conversation between Sam Gindin (a self-claimed “leader” of radical workers here in Toronto despite his probable own explicit denial of such a title) and me: 

Re: A Good or Decent Job and a Fair Deal
Sam Gindin
Sat 2017-02-18 8:05 AM
Something is missing here. No-one on this list is denying that language doesn’t reflect material realities (the language we use reflects the balance of forces) or that it is irrelevant in the struggle for material effects (the language of middle class vs working class matters). And no one is questioning whether unions are generally sectional as opposed to class organizations or whether having a job or ‘decent’ pay is enough. The question is the autonomy you give to language.

The problem isn’t that workers refer to ‘fair pay’ but the reality of their limited options. Language is NOT the key doc changing this though it clearly plays a role. That role is however only important when it is linked to actual struggles – to material cents not just discourse. The reason we have such difficulties in doing education has to do with the limits of words alone even if words are indeed essential to struggles. Words help workers grasp the implications of struggles, defeats, and the partial victories we have under capitalism (no other victories as you say, are possible under capitalism).

So when workers end a strike with the gains they hoped for going in, we can tell them they are still exploited. But if that is all we do, what then? We can – as I know you’d do – not put it so bluntly (because the context and not just the words matter). that emphasize that they showed that solidarity matters but we’re still short of the fuller life we deserve and should aspire to and that this is only possible through a larger struggle, but then we need to be able to point to HOW to do this. Otherwise we are only moralizing. That is to say, it is the ideas behind the words and the recognition of the need for larger structures to fight through that primarily matter. Words help with this and so are important but exaggerating their role can be as dangerous as ignoring it.

What I’m trying to say is that people do, I think, agree with the point you started with – we need to remind ourselves of the limits of, for example, achieving ‘fair wages’. But the stark way you criticize using that word, as opposed to asking how do we accept the reality out there and move people to larger class understandings – of which language is an important part – seems to have thrown the discussion off kilter.

On Sat, Feb 18, 2017 at 7:00 AM, Frederick Harris <arbeit67@hotmail.com> wrote:

I was waiting to see whether there was any dispute concerning either the primary function of language or its material nature. Since there has been no response to that issue, I will assume that the view that the primary function of language is to coordinate social activity has been accepted.

What are some of the political implications of such a view of language? Firstly, the view that “But material conditions matter more” has no obvious basis. If language coordinates our activity, surely workers need language “to reproduce themselves.”

The question is whether coordination is to be on a narrower or wider basis.

Let us now take a look at the view that a contract (a collective agreement) is fair or just and that what workers are striving for is a decent or good job.

If we do not oppose the view that any collective agreement is fair to workers and that the jobs that they have or striving to have are decent jobs, then are we saying that a particular struggle against a particular employer can, in some meaningful sense, result in a contract that workers are to abide by out of some sense of fairness? Does not such a view fragment workers by implicitly arguing that they can, by coordinating their action at the local or micro level, achieve a fair contract and a good job?

If, on the other hand, we argue against the view that the workers who are fighting against a particular employer cannot achieve any fair contract or a decent job, but rather that they can only achieve this in opposition to a class of employers and in coordination with other workers in many other domains (in other industries that produce the means of consumption of workers, in industries that produce the machines and the raw material that go into the factory, in schools where teachers teach our children and so forth), then there opens up the horizon for a broader approach for coordinating activity rather than the narrow view of considering it possible to achieve not a fair contract and a decent job in relation to a particular employer.

In other words, it is a difference between a one-sided, micro point of view and a class point of view.

As far as gaining things within capitalism, of course it is necessary to fight against your immediate employer, in solidarity with your immediate fellow workers, in order to achieve anything. I already argued this in relation to the issue of health in another post.

Is our standard for coordinating our activity to be limited to our immediate relation to an employer? Or is to expand to include our relation to the conditions for the ‘workers to reproduce themselves’?

“They turn more radical when it becomes clear that the system can’t meet their needs and other forms of action become necessary -“

How does it become clear to workers when their relations to each other as workers occurs through the market system? Where the products of their own labour are used against them to oppress and exploit them? Are we supposed to wait until “the system can’t meet their needs”? In what sense?

I for one have needed to live a decent life–not to have a decent job working for an employer or for others to be working for employers. I for one have needed to live a dignified life–not a life where I am used for the benefit of employers. Do not other workers have the same need? Is that need being met now? If not, should we not bring up the issue at every occasion? Can any collective agreement with an employer realize that need?

Where is a vision that provides guidance towards a common goal? A “fair contract”? A “decent” job? Is this a class vision that permits the coordination of workers’ activities across industries and work sites? Or a limited vision that reproduces the segmentation and fragmentation of the working class?

Fred

The bottom line is that many who consider themselves radical socialists here in Toronto (and undoubtedly elsewhere)  indulge working-class organizations, such as unions. They are, ultimately, afraid to alienate social-democratic or reformist organizations. Consequently, they themselves, objectively, function as social democrats or social reformers and fail to engage workers in the necessary delegitimisation process of the class power of employers. 

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