Blame Unions? Try Blaming Employers
Further to my recent post about the current mini wave of industrial unrest in Canada, and who should wear the blame for it…
Now we have the latest developments at Air Canada, where the Machinists local has rejected a tentative multi-union agreement which would have deferred Air Canada’s pension contributions in hopes of seeing the company through the recession.Â Here’s another case where the unions will take the heat (as evidenced by today’s dramatic Globe and Mail headline about how they will hold the Olympics hostage!) for a spectacular failure of private enterprise.Â Air Canada got siimilar pension relief back in 2004 when it emerged from CCAA protection.Â The company enjoyed a short-lived rebound — the benefits of which were squandered through excessive financial engineering overseen by former CEO Robert Milton.Â Investors, brokers, shareholders, and Milton himself pocketed a total of over $2 billion in one-time financial gains from that wheeling and dealing.Â Meanwhile, theÂ airline itself was left precariously underfunded, worth a total of around $100 million on the stock market.Â Yet unions, merely for trying to hang ontoÂ what they have in the face of this corporate short-sightedness, will become the public enemy — instead of Milton, and the whole apparatus of financialization.Â (In the Machinists’ case, the issue is further complicated by Air Canada’s offshoring of their work to El Salvador.)
I attended an event in Toronto on Tuesday that gives a smaller but equally compelling example of employers taking advantage of the uncertainty and insecurity bred by the recession, to take the axe to collective bargaining.Â 20 CAW members at Cision (a media monitoring service) have been on strike for 2 months in Ottawa.Â Is this another example of unions making excessive demands during a recession?Â Of course not.Â Like every other dispute we’ve discussed (City of Toronto, City of Windsor, the automakers, the B.C. ambulance drivers, the auto parts workers who have occupied their closing factories to try to get their legal severance) this one is about just hanging onto to what you were previously entitled to.
Allen Kirshner is the steward for this determined little local union.Â Here’s what he said at a support rally held in Toronto on Tuesday.Â It’s an excellent little speech.Â And it describes better than I could what is happening in this strike (where the employer clearly just went through the motions — holding only one face-to-face session with the union bargainers, followed by the legally-required minimum participation in conciliation and mediation — in a strategy which is clearly aimed at destroying the collective agreement).
Think of this the next time you hear about a labour “dispute.”Â There has never been a time when collective bargaining disputes were more one-sided than they are at present.Â Don’t blame the unions, blame the employers.
Here is Allen’s fine speech:
Hello, my name is Allen Kirshner and I’m a Union Steward at the Ottawa office of Cision Canada, represented by the CAW Local 567.Â I want to thank everyone for coming out to support us.Â Thank you to the Canadian Labour Congress, the Ontario Federation of Labour and the Toronto Labour Council for being here to help us get out the message to our company’s executives that it’s time they treated their Ottawa workers with respect and returned to the bargaining table to negotiate a proper contract.Â Today marks the start of the 9th week of our strike, which began May 5th.Â During that time, the company has shown, and continues to show, no interest in resolving this dispute.Â
I’d like to take the opportunity to explain to those who’ve come out to support us how we’ve come to this point.Â Our Collective Bargaining Agreement expired at the end of 2008.Â With the tough economic times that have hit, Cision seized the opportunity to exploit the situation by proposing a completely revamped CBA.Â In it they demanded no less than 51 changes, many of which attacked the core structure of the agreement.Â Of greatest concern were proposals to restructure severance requirements, absolving them of paying any compensation for employees who have worked less than five full years, while clawing back payments to everyone else.Â They proposed wanting to circumvent the Employment Standards Act through a reduction in severance requirements if one-quarter of staff were laid off within a 6 month period instead of the current 18 months.Â They insisted upon the ability to permanently change shift start times within 4 hours either way with virtually no notice.Â Imagine you work 8 to 4 and are told you now have to come in for 4am.Â How would you feel?Â Exactly!Â Cost of Living Allowance clause removal, restrictive new language on meeting completely undefined company standards, and initial wage increase proposals of 0%, 1% and 1% over three years.Â This is a company hell bent on busting our union and punishing us for having the gall to ask for decent compensation.
When it came time to negotiate, Cision did the absolute minimum they needed to do.Â One face-to-face meeting without a third party present, one meeting with a conciliator, one meeting with a mediator.Â Each time, the company presented some version of its initial proposal, with no more than cosmetic changes.Â At those meetings, Cision was represented by the Human Resources Manager and an Ottawa-based lawyer.Â There were no actual management staff present to even give the appearance of feigning interest.Â Whereas our previous two CBA agreements had us dealing with the company president – not the same person in charge these days — the current head of Cision Canada has been completely absent, choosing to hide in this ivory tower and afraid to ever show his face at bargaining sessions.Â The meetings with the conciliator and mediator each lasted less than an hour.Â The company negotiating team was told Cision HAD to have key proposals imposed, no matter what.Â With a lack of any sign of actual willingness to bargain, we felt we had no choice but to set a strike date.Â When the company still refused to budge, we walked out.
We’re a small group of two dozen employees.Â There’s virtually not an hour of the day, evening, night, overnight or weekend that one of us isn’t on the job.Â We’ve taken pride in our work with a company that has spent the last few years doing what it can to emaciate the Ottawa office.Â They’ve reassigned work to other divisions, they’ve shipped work to India using a third-party contractor and now they’re trying to destroy our Collective Bargaining Agreement and have gone as far as to use scabs during our strike.Â We’re here today to say “enough is enough”!
I’d like to briefly address any Cision Toronto workers who may be present.Â If you don’t already know, the reason why you’re getting paid what you are is because of the Ottawa office.Â After we unionized, the company raised your wages and benefits as a pre-emptive measure against you doing the same.Â If you think for one minute that they’re not going to come after your compensation if they get their way with our agreement, then have I got news for you.Â They can…and they most certainly will, if it suits them.
It’d be easy for me to only offer up a rousing speech of hope, with vim and vigour, hellfire and brimstone.Â And while I hope I’ve managed to stir up some passion to help fuel our cause and carry on the fight, I also want to convey a more complete message.Â We’re angry, we’re anxious and we’re disillusioned within the company’s attitude and actions.Â We are, and have always been, fully prepared to work towards a respectable agreement.Â We’ve reduced and adjusted our demands to reflect the economic reality, offering to even forego any pay increases and compensation demands for 2009.Â But this ungodly proposal you’ve unleashed on us is nothing short of disgusting.Â How you sleep at night knowing what you’re trying to do to your own people, some of whom have worked 5, 10, 15 even close to 20 years here is just beyond me.Â
Well, I’ve spoken my piece.Â Thank you so much to everyone for coming.Â Your support means a lot to us.