Defense of Arrested Picketers is Vital–But Not the Idealization of Collective Bargaining, Collective Agreements and Strikes

On January 20, 2020, Jerry Dias, president of a large private-sector union in Canada, and others–were arrested in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. Despite my criticism of Mr. Dias on this blog, in this instance he and others deserve support–as do the workers who are on the picket line in that city.

I am copying the details below from the Rank-and-File website–but I also have a criticism of how Rank-and-File used the situation to support an ideology of fairness if there were anti-scab legislation to prevent the situation from arising in the first place:

In a move that shocked trade unionists across the country, the Regina Police Service arrested Unifor National President Jerry Dias and thirteen other Unifor members at Gate 7 of Regina’s Co-op Refinery Complex on Monday, January 20, 2020.  About 730 refinery workers, members of Local 594, have been locked out for the past 49 days for trying to save their current Defined Benefit pension plan.

Earlier that day, Dias announced Unifor would blockade the refinery gates, challenging a court injunction which ruled workers could only delay vehicles entering and leaving the refinery by 10 minutes. The union argues this injunction interferes with workers’ constitutional right to picket.

“Let’s just say in 2019 – and so far 2020 – we’ve had enough injunctions that we could probably wallpaper a concert hall,” Dias tells RankandFile.ca. “The simple reality is that Unifor is very different than other unions. The fines, the police, the court decisions are not going to prevent us from winning justice for our members. It isn’t any more complicated than that.”

The night prior to the Unifor arrests, around 500 Unifor members from across Canada flew in to help bolster the picket lines. Because of this, Dias asserted that Unifor – not Local 594 – was blockading the refinery, and therefore not breaking the injunction leveled against Local 594.

However, the Co-op Refinery disagreed, calling the blockade “illegal” and a “bullying tactic.”

The Regina Leader-Post also reported that trucking companies lobbied the government and police to intervene the morning of the crackdown:

“C.S. Day Transport president Heather Day sent a letter Monday morning to RPS Chief Evan Bray, as well as Premier Scott Moe, Labour Minister Don Morgan, Corrections and Policing Minister Christine Tell, Mayor Michael Fougere and Regina city councillors.”

“RPS is failing to enforce the court order and other laws and bylaws by ‘not choosing sides.’ Does the presence of a labour dispute mean that laws no longer need to be followed or enforced?” she asked.”

Regina Police Chief Evan Bray stated this letter did not influence his decision to intervene.

Following Dias’ arrest around 5 PM, the Regina Police Service continued a protracted attempt to break Unifor’s blockade, bringing in several tow trucks – two belonging to the City of Regina – and a front-end loader to remove vehicles Unifor had parked as part of their blockade. Bray says about 50 police officers were deployed.

Unifor members responded by climbing in and on top of the union’s vehicles to prevent them from being towed, letting air out of the tires, or removing tires altogether. At one point, an RPS officer took control of one of Unifor’s U-Haul trucks and attempted to drive it away, hitting a worker who was then arrested by other officers. RPS also threatened to use tear gas, but the union was able to talk to the police and deescalate. The police withdrew around 11 PM and the blockade remained intact. The workers arrested throughout the night were charged with mischief.

“We don’t see the police getting involved very aggressively very often anymore,” says Charles Smith, co-author of Unions in Court: Organized Labour and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. “It was much more common in the post-war period in the 50s and 60s. We don’t see it as much anymore – which is why it’s in some ways so shocking.”

Instead of jail time, courts often level major fines against unions for breaking laws or injunctions. For example, Prime Minister Trudeau legislated the Canadian Union of Postal Worker’s back to work in 2018. This broke the union’s rotating strikes under threat of $1,000 – $50,000 fines a day for individual workers and $100,000 a day for the union if found in contravention of the act. These fines are significant enough to deter union leadership from breaking the law, even if it weakens the union’s position at the bargaining table.

Unifor 594 has been fined $100,000 for breaking the injunction.

“You know, if you want to win these battles, sometimes you’re going to have to pay a bit of fines,” Unifor 594 President Kevin Bittman explains to RankandFile.ca. “Because really, if you’re going to just stand out here and walk back and forth, you’re probably not going to win it against somebody that’s willing to spend a billion dollars just to try and break you.”

Smith argues Co-op’s injunction escalated tensions on the line because it took away the workers’ key bargaining chip – putting economic pressure on the employer by withholding their labour.

“There’s no way we can call it an equal struggle,” he states. “Now imagine if we had anti-scab legislation, which meant the employer couldn’t use replacement workers. Then it becomes much more of a fair fight, but of course we’re not willing to have that sort of negotiation in Saskatchewan, because the government isn’t interested in evening the playing field.” [my emphasis] 

“Because we have this situation where employers can weaken lines through these legal instruments,  why would we be surprised that tensions ramp up like this?” Smith continues. “It easily could have not happened, we easily could have avoided this had there been some sort of semblance of fairness by the employer or the state.”

SOLIDARITY RALLY HIGHLIGHTS NEED FOR WORKING CLASS UNITY

Unifor 594 President Kevin Bittman speaks at Wednesday’s solidarity rally.

Following Monday’s arrests, labour unions across the country condemned the police intervention and called for Co-op to return to the bargaining table.

Notably, Canadian Labour Congress President Hassan Yussuff flew in for a solidarity rally on January 22, alongside CUPE National President Mark Hancock, OPSEU President Warren “Smokey” Thomas and Seafarers’ International Union President James Given. Canadian Federation of Nurses’ Unions President Linda Silas and Saskatchewan Federation of Labour President Lori Johb were also present.

Representing Unifor was Local 594 President Kevin Bittman and National Secretary Treasurer Lana Payne. Dias was barred from the picket line, a condition of his release. Payne told the crowd Dias faces a two year prison sentence if he returned to the refinery.

“You cannot allow an employer, whether it’s a government, or private business to be allowed to destroy workers hopes and dreams to build a better life,” Yussuff tells RankandFile.ca. “I’m here to show solidarity with these workers – regardless of course of anything else – and to make sure they know the entire labour movement is with them to ensure they can get a fair settlement to resolve this dispute.” [my emphasis] 

In 2018, Unifor disaffiliated from the CLC following an attempted raid of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113. Unifor and the CLC disagreed over the interpretation of Article 4 of the CLC constitution. According to Larry Savage, Article 4 “governs the disputes between affiliates and provides a pathway for workers to switch unions.”

The disaffiliation created tension between Unifor and the broader labour movement, impacting organizing & resource distribution all the way down to the labour councils. Given this history, Yussuff’s presence at the Unifor picket line is significant.

“I think this should remind us all we’re stronger together. When we’re together, we’re a stronger movement, because we need each other,” he continues. “Without that, of course, any employer or government could take advantage of us. This again demonstrates why we need solidarity and to build together to build the entire labour movement in this country.”

CUPE National President Mark Hancock not only showed up to Wednesday’s rally, but actively intervened in de-escalating Monday night’s police crackdown. The police had brought two City of Regina tow trucks and a front-end loader operated by CUPE members. Hancock let his members know they had the right refuse unsafe work, which they did, leaving Gate 7.

“We all have our differences,” Hancock tells RankandFile.ca. “Every union is different…they all bring different things to the Canadian Labour Congress…and sometimes, you know, we have our disagreements, we have our fights – and that’s okay. But when it comes to workers, being treated the way that these workers are, the attack on their pensions, the labour movement needs to be united. Whether it’s Unifor, whether it’s OPSEU, whether it’s CUPE, we all need to support each other – and that’s why CUPE is here.”

President of the Seafarer’s International Union James Given said SIU would donate $10,000 to Unifor, and challenged all other unions present to do the same.

“If they wanted a fight, if they’re looking for a fight, they’ve got themselves a fight” Given said about Co-op at the rally, “…11.5 million union members are now focused on Regina.”

Shobna Radons, President of the Regina and District Labour Council, believes it is important to remember this dispute is about real people.

“One of the things that’s just amazing to me is coming out and spending time with folks on the line and talking with real people,” she tells RankandFile.ca. “Everyone knows there’s been a disaffiliation of Unifor and that affects us even at the municipal level and the labour councils. It’s pretty powerful having [Yussuff] here supporting workers, the fact that we can put our differences aside and fight the fight.”

Bittman is thankful for the support, and emphasizes the outcome of this pension fight with the Co-op impacts workers across the country, not just his members.

“It just keeps building and building, every day there’s more people on the lines, there’s more unions coming out to support, everybody knows what’s at stake here,” he says. ”This is just old fashioned union busting and we’re not going to let it happen. If you can let a company that’s making 2.5 billion dollars over 3 years take away pensions, it’s really okay for companies to take anybody’s pension away. This is a stand that we’ve got to put down and say it’s not okay.“

The call for solidarity is indeed welcome. Anti-scab legislation, furthermore, is certainly preferable to a lack of such legislation. However, alongside this call in the article for such legislation, it is argued that anti-scab legislation can somehow magically transform the struggle between the working class and the class of employers into “an equal struggle,” that anti-scab legislation can miraculously transform such struggles into a “much more fair fight,” thereby “evening the playing field,” leading to a “fair settlement?”

Is there evidence that any collective agreement expresses “a fair settlement?” Is there evidence that anti-scab legislation leads to a much more level playing field between employers and workers?

Anti-scab legislation does exist in two other provinces–Quebec and British Columbia (see “A Federal Anti-Scab Law for Canada? The Debate over Bill C-257,” Larry Savage and Joseph Butovsky, 2009, in Just Labour: A Canadian Journal of Work and Society , Volume 13 , Spring 2009). Such legislation does not prevent the economic power of employers from taking precedence; therefore, such legislation does not by any means tip the relation between unionized members and their employers in such a way that they are equals (page 20):

Unions are not interested in negotiating an employer out of business. For that reason, economic conditions rather than the presence of anti-scab laws, continue to dictate the tone and content of negotiated agreement.2 … anti-scab laws may provide modest improvement in settlements…

Furthermore, as shown on this blog, collective agreements in Quebec and British Columbia express, implicitly and often explicitly, the power of management (a minority) to dictate to workers (a majority) in a particular firm or state organization (see Management Rights, Part One: Private Sector Collective Agreement, British Columbia,  Management Rights, Part Six: Public Sector Collective Agreement, British Columbia  and Management Rights, Part Seven: Public Sector Collective Agreement, Quebec).

The social-democratic left, it can be seen, must idealize legislation and  the collective-bargaining regime because, if they did not, they would then have to openly recognize that the working class can never possess equal power to the power of employers as long as the economic power of employers as a class is not challenged as such (and not just the particular powers of particular employers).

(I will critique Canadian Labour Congress President Hassan Yussuff’s views in another post when I review Jane McAlevey’s book A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing, and the Fight for Democracy.) 

What has been the response of some leftists here in Toronto? If the response by the Steering Committee of the Socialist Project is any indication, then there is obviously condemnation of the arrests, but the Steering Committee then makes a vague criticism of the rule of law:

While the employer crows on about how wonderful the “rule of law” is – a trumped-up law that prevents workers from protecting their futures and jobs – Unifor Secretary-Treasurer Lana Payne commented, “[t]his will not be settled in the courts. This will not be settled by police. We’re holding the line. I don’t know how much more clear I can be.”

The Socialist Project stands in support and solidarity with the members of Unifor 594 and the union’s national leadership in this struggle. We support the union’s demands for an end to the prosecution of workers exercising their right to picket, removal of the trumped-up charges and injunctions, stopping the use of scabs and demand that Co-op return to the bargaining table and withdraw their efforts to change workers’ pensions. •

Reference to the “rule of law” in quotation marks, I assume, uses the quotation marks as “scare quotes.” But what is the Steering Commitee’s position on the rule of law? Silence. (See, by contrast, the posts Socialism, Police and the Government or State, Part One). What is the Steering Commitee’s position on the idea that collective bargaining is a fair process and that the collective agreement is a fair contract? That unionized workers have a “decent job” because of the existence of a collective agreement? What is the Steering Committee’s position on the implicit or explicit management rights clause that exists in collective agreements?

Such is the left in Toronto these days. Is there any wonder that there is a rightward drift of workers when the left simply ignores such issues?

 

The Silences of the Social-Democratic Left

I had two recent conversations with social democrats on two different (though undoubtedly related topics).

The first conversation is a representative of Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 4400 (education workers). The Local’s website indicates the following:

Toronto Education Workers/Local 4400 is made up of approximately 12,000 Education Workers who primarily work within the Toronto District School Board; Childcare Workers from various Childcare Centres and Caretakers from Viamonde French Board.

Representing over 400 Job Classifications, and over 1,000 Worksites.

They were set to go out on strike in the context of major budget cuts for school funding due to retrenchment by the Conservative provincial Ontario government of Doug Ford.

Duane Kennedy, Unit D Steward Co-Ordinator for Local 4400, made the following comment on a Facebook page:

Duane Kennedy Too bad they couldn’t get it right , we will strike not for new bargining dates it will be for a fair contract

I am unsure what he was referring to in relation to “new bargaining dates.” It may be to the title of a video and an accompanying textual explanation that is related to a video link on the Facebook page:

CUPE says strike next week if no dates scheduled

The union that represents school support staff says they will walk off the job next week if the province doesn’t agree to more talks

I asked the following:

Fred Harris What is a fair contract? Collective agreements limit the power of employers to dictate to workers, but they do not eliminate the power of management to dictate to workers what to do.

I guess it is fair for employers to treat workers as things?

The response was–silence. Why is that? Was my question out of line? Was it inappropriate? Did it express, as CUPE Local 3902 executive director Wayne Dealy indicated when I brought up the issue of whether working in a capitalist brewery constituted “decent work,” , the rantings of a “condescending prick?”

Or is it perhaps that union reps use the phrase “fair contract” without facing up to the fact that management has the power to dictate to workers in various ways whether there is a collective agreement or not?

Let us consider a couple of collective agreements between CUPE Local 4400 and the Toronto District School Board.

COLLECTIVE
AGREEMENT
Between
Toronto District School Board
And
Local 4400,
Canadian Union of
Public Employees
UNIT C
September 1, 2014 – August 31, 2019

Page 66 of this collective agreement has the following clause:

ARTICLE D – MANAGEMENT RIGHTS
D.1 The Union recognizes that it is the right of the Employer to exercise the
generally recognized regular and customary functions of management and
to direct its working forces. The Employer agrees not to exercise these
functions in a manner inconsistent with the provisions of the Collective
Agreement.

As I have indicated in other posts, the management rights clause gives management (as representative of the employer) far-ranging powers to direct workers as it sees fit. The collective agreement limits that power but in no way calls that power into question.

Consider another collective agreement for the same local:

COLLECTIVE
AGREEMENT
Between
Toronto District School Board
And
Local 4400,
Canadian Union of
Public Employees
UNIT D
September 1, 2014 – August 31, 2019

Page 66 of this collective agreement has the following clause (identical to the other collective agreement):

ARTICLE D – MANAGEMENT RIGHTS
D.1 The Union recognizes that it is the right of the Employer to exercise the
generally recognized regular and customary functions of management and
to direct its working forces. The Employer agrees not to exercise these
functions in a manner inconsistent with the provisions of the Collective
Agreement.

How are these collective agreements (collective contracts) fair contracts? Why did not the CUPE union rep not respond to my question? My hypothesis is that–he could not. The term is a cliche for union reps, used to justify their activity of limiting their criticism of an employer to–an employer. They do not question the power of employers to direct workers in general but only wish to limit that power.

For a collective agreement to be fair, it would be necessary to show that managerial power to direct work forces as it sees fit (subject to the collective agreement) is fair. Where is there such a justification?

Where is there a fair contract? Can union reps provide examples of such a contract among regular workers? I would like to see such an example so that I know what they are talking about. Would you not like to see some examples so that we have a target that we can aim at?

This idea of a fair contract is, frankly, bullshit. It does not deal with–and cannot deal with–the daily lives of workers in unionized environments. Workers are subject, in various ways, to restrictions on their lives. How is that fair? The power of managers to dictate what to do, when to do it, how to do it and how much to produce (legally although certainly not always factually) leads to various kinds of injustices–up to and including the injury and death of workers.

Another “conversation” I had (really, a monologue–such is democracy these days) was about a 57-year old man, Enrico Miranda, who was killed in a capitalist factory (Fiera Foods) here in Toronto. He had been working for a temporary-worker agency for about ten years, five of which were for the industrial bakery Fiera Foods, located in As Mr. Miranda cleaned a machine, he was crushed by it and died.

A community organization called the Jane and Finch Action Against Poverty (JFAAP), located in the Jane and Finch neighbourhood of Toronto (one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Toronto), organized a rally (along with some union members) to protest the fifth killing of temporary workers at the capitalist factory in the past 20 years. (The factory is located about six kilometers from Jane Street and Finch Avenue, in North York, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.) Seventy percent of its workforce consists of temporary workers. Many are hired through temporary agencies.

In Ontario, when temporary workers are injured on the job and are employed by temporary agencies, the premiums of employers who hire workers from temporary agencies and who pay into workers’ compensation are unaffected since they are not considered to be the employer but rather the temporary agency. It is, in effect, a way of avoiding to pay higher premiums in the case of injuries to workers.

On their Facebook page, JFAAP posted:

Posted @withrepost • @mayworkstoronto Another temp worker death at Fiera Foods. The 5th worker killed while on the factory floor of this company. Up to 70% of this company’s workers are temp workers, twice as likely to be injured on the job as full employees. Fiera has had more than 150 health and safety violations. When Enrico Miranda was killed last week, Fiera Foods did not even stop production. Under Canada’s Criminal Code, Fiera Foods should be held criminally responsible. ‘Kill a worker, go to jail.’ #canlab #fierafoods #onpoli
Funeral fund to support the family: https://www.gofundme.com/f/funeral-help-for-tay @ Fiera Foods

I made the following comment:

Fred Harris “Kill a worker, go to jail”: a fitting slogan, but how is it going to be achieved? It would require much more power than at present among communities and the working class. How, for example, to prevent the whittling down of legislation to make corporations criminally responsible for deaths (see Stephen Bittle’s work on the whittling down of such legislation after the Westray mine deaths).

The response was–silence. It is all very good to make demands that are needed by people, but unless we can find a way of actually realizing such demands, they are mere wishes. The social-democratic left often resort to such wishful thinking rather than facing up to the power required to realize certain demands. That power is–class power, not just “community power” (although the two could go hand in hand).

In another post, JFAAP posted:

No photo description available.

My comment: Fred Harris Fiera certainly should be criticized, but are all these “accidents” due to the use of temporary workers? Could they not be the result of a combination of the use of such temporary workers and the more general fact that workers are things to be used by employers? By the fact that workers are “costs” (with a price) for employers?

Or are the approximately 1,000 deaths at work in Canada mainly due to the use of temporary agencies?

Also, can labour laws ever really protect workers in the context of a society driven by the pursuit of profit?

The response was–silence.

JFAAP’s response reminds me of all those movies and television programs (including Netflix, of course), where there is one or a few “bad cops,” and yet the police in general are treated as good. Fiera Foods certainly is worse as an employer in terms of health and safety than many other employers–but what of all the other employers whose health and safety records are better? Why not criticize them? Why let them off the hook on a daily basis?

This attitude of criticizing a particular employer and not employers as a class (just like the criticism of a particular cop rather than the police as such) can be called “the bad apple syndrome.”

It is much easier to criticize particular employers than it is to criticize employers as a class.

Or are my concerns just the concerns of an “insane” person (as Errol Young, a member of JFAAP, once called me)? Or are my concerns a reflection of the fact that I am a  “condescending prick” (as a representative of CUPE Local 3902, Wayne Dealy, once called me)?

Or is it that both union reps and reps from community organizations refuse to face up to the limited effectiveness of their concepts of justice and fairness? That they refuse to consider the class power of employers and how that situation in general is unfair?

What do you think?

 

Management Rights, Part Six: Public Sector Collective Agreement, British Columbia

I thought it appropriate to include a collective agreement of the place where I used to work. I worked as a bilingual library technician at the District Resource Centre of School District No 57, Prince George, British Columbia for about two and a half years. I was also the union steward at the board office and participated as a member of the bargaining committee in collective bargaining.

Unlike the social-democratic left, I hardly found my working experience there to be “decent” (as in “decent work,” a phrase used by the social-democratic left often enough, without explaining what they mean by it). Being riveted in front of a computer screen day after day became boring and oppressive. In the old collective agreement (in the early 1990s), it was the Operating Engineers Union, Local 858, that represented the workers. In that collective agreement, those who worked in front of a computer screen could do alternative work for ten minutes per hour. I began to exercise that right and did some clerical work (affixing labels to items, for example). Needless to say, this created an implicit friction between my immediate supervisor, Carrie Yuen-Lo, and me since it interfered with management’s decision-making power to determine what I and my fellow workers were to do.

Interestingly enough, other workers who worked in front of computer screens did not use this right to escape from being in front of the computer screen for hours on end without a break. Perhaps they enjoyed their work so much that they felt no need to take a break. Or perhaps they felt intimidated and feared making waves. I will let the reader decide which was the more probable reason.

Should workers comply with collective agreements out of necessity (because their enemy has more power than they do–for now), or should they comply with them because it is the “decent” or right thing to do? Union reps have few if any answers to this question. Why is that?

From

AGREEMENT
BETWEEN
THE BOARD OF SCHOOL TRUSTEES OF
SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 57 (PRINCE GEORGE}
AND
CANADIAN UNION OF PUBLIC EMPLOYEES
LOCAL 4991
JULY 1,2014 TO JUNE 30,2019

page 5:

ARTICLE 4 • MANAGEMENT RIGHTS
4.01 The Union recognizes the right and responsibility of the Board to manage and
operate the school district, and agrees that the employment, assignment, direction
and determination of employment status of the work force Is vested exclusively in the Board, except as otherwise specifically provided in this agreement Of applicable legislation.

4.02 It is mutually agreed that no third party Shall have the right to amend, modify or expand the provisions of the collective agreement and any Issue arising during the term of the agreement on which the Board has not specifically agreed to some limitation on the exercise of its authority will be conclusively determined by the judgement of the Board until otherwise established through subsequent collective bargaining.