Business

Labor's rising tide

As the economy improves, unions demand their share

JENNIFER WELLS September 15 1997
Business

Labor's rising tide

As the economy improves, unions demand their share

JENNIFER WELLS September 15 1997

Labor's rising tide

As the economy improves, unions demand their share

JENNIFER WELLS

Business

Darrell Tingley, president of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, was in his third-floor Bank Street office in Ottawa when he took a call from Buzz Hargrove, president of the Canadian Auto Workers union. Hargrove wanted to extend congratulations, says Tingley, for “making that fight one of the fights at the table. If it has caught the fancy of the autoworkers, it will catch the fancy of the paper workers, it will catch the fancy of the steelworkers. I think the United Parcel Service strike kickstarted that.” Hargrove then put his money where his mouth is, faxing a letter offering CUPW a loan of $5 million of CAW money, and more to follow should it be necessary. Hargrove referred to the cash as a “token of our solidarity.”

The fight Tingley is referring to is the battle over part-time workers—or, more precisely, turning part-time workers into full-time workers. The 185,000 Teamsters at UPS, who struck for 15 days last month, won a major victory in the conversion of 10,000 jobs from part time to full time over a five-year period. “I think that caught the imagination of the public,” says Tingley. “There are no part-time mortgages. There are no part-time loan payments.”

For CUPW, the conversion of 1,500 of its 17,000 part-timers is key to current contract talks with Canada Post Corp. The Crown corporation, says Tingley, “has been unwilling to negotiate in any serious manner” on this and other issues. If the post office does not bend, he says, “we’ll be out of the process and we’ll be looking for our right to strike in about three weeks’ time.”

Should the CUPW workers strike, they will be going with, rather than against, the tide. “Labor unrest appears to be on the rise,” a recent Statistics Canada study on the country’s trade union movement concluded, “following a prolonged ‘cooling off’ period.” The report noted that 3.3 million person-days were lost to strikes or lockouts in 1996, twice as many as in the previous year. The strength in the economy, rising corporate profits and the shifting sentiment away from deficit-reduction and towards worker rewards have hardened the country’s unions, and the 3.6 million workers they represent, against the paltry gains of the early 1990s. “The times they are a-changing,” says Tom Hesse, assistant to the western Canadian director for the United Food and Commercial Workers.

The UFCW is a case in point. On Aug. 26, workers at the Maple Leaf Foods Ltd. meat-processing plant in Edmonton returned a 68-per-cent strike vote in spite of management threats to close the plant if workers walk out. Maple Leaf has set a deadline of Sept. 10 for its 840-strong workforce to accept a mediator’s recommendation of a 28-cent-an-hour wage increase; the workers say they are standing pat for a dollar an hour, which would still, they say, leave them lagging the meat packers in the company’s Winnipeg plant. In the company’s North Battleford, Sask., pork-processing plant, all 180 employees voted to strike two weeks ago. Last week, Maple Leaf countered by locking out its workers. In June, the UFCW settled for an across-the-board four-per-cent wage increase over five years for 10,000 striking Safeway workers who had spent 11 weeks walldng the picket lines. The union won a guarantee that part-time workers would be assigned a minimum of 12 hours a week and the company dropped its demand for a two-tiered wage system. The strike drew widespread support from Albertans and saw Safeway temporarily lose 70 per cent of its business across the province.

There was an echo of that in the UPS strike, which was backed in U.S. public opinion polling by a margin of 2 to 1. But public support for Safeway and UPS employees does not necessarily translate into support for unions as such, says University of Calgary labor economist Chris Bruce. “In general, people feel lower wage earners should be getting more,” he says.

“We have gone through a very long period with no real wage gains and we are in a booming economy.”

Ken Georgetti, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour, says that workers’ pent-up expectations to share the wealth have put a harder edge on labor demands. The mood among workers is “testy,” he says. “Our motto is going to be, ‘Show us the money.’”

Georgetti does not expect any gains to be easily won. “Our people are saying it is time for us to get our dividends. But [the companies] are not saying, ‘You made sacrifices so now we’re going to give it to you.’ They’re going to make us fight for it.”

The wage gains won by the Teamsters at UPS—a 37-per-cent increase over five years for part-time workers, and 16 per cent over the same period for full-timers—were as eye-catching as the conversion of part-time jobs. “That’s a significant amount of cash,” says CUPW’s Tingley. “Corporations have never been healthier. It’s time now that the workers start to share in that. There’ll be no more shyness in asking for a decent raise.”

U.S. employers have been getting that message loud and clear. In a June cover story, Nation’s Business, published in Washington by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, sounded a warning that “Big Labor” is back. Union activism is on the increase, said the story, in large measure due to the efforts of John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, and his $41-million budget, aimed at increasing both the political clout and the membership muscle of the federation. The same piece cautioned business to be on the alert, as a more unionized workplace could push up wage and benefit costs, which in turn “could cut into profits, dividends and stock values.” In a front-page article last week. The New York Times said that Sweeney’s efforts at revitalization, combined with the UPS settlement, put the labor movement “in its strongest position in nearly a generation."

But there remain huge discrepancies between the U.S. and Canadian labor markets. With unemployment at nine per cent, compared with less than five per cent in the United States, Canadian workers are still struggling with the job insecurity that symbolized the last recession. Wage settlements have risen: collective bargaining agreements averaged 1.7 per cent in the first half of this year compared with 0.9 per cent in each of 1995 and 1996. But the labor market in Canada is not as tightly squeezed as in the United States, where shortages of workers in some industries have helped bid wages up.

And, adds Aron Gampel, deputy chief economist at Scotiabank in Toronto, the UPS example has unique characteristics. “UPS may not be a bellwether,” he says, citing the company’s huge market share, to say nothing of the incomparable clout of the mighty Teamsters. Companies, cautions Gampel, can’t raise prices if they hope to remain competitive, and can’t pass on higher costs to consumers. That puts the focus on increasing productivity and unit sales—easier said than done.

There are many examples of unions claiming less than stellar victories. Last month, workers at Jimmy Pattison’s Overwaitea Foods supermarket chain in British Columbia ratified an agreement that introduced a two-tiered pay structure with lower wages for new, part-time hires. In Vancouver, 1,100 outside municipal workers remain on strike after rejecting the city’s offer of no pay increase in the first year and one per cent in each of the following two years. The workers are asking for two per cent in the contract’s first year. ‘We have fallen behind the consumer price index, and we’re way behind private-sector increases,” says Connie Credico, chief negotiator for the Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents the strikers. Municipalities, she says, have been boasting to taxpayers about their ability to hold the line on wage settlements to below inflation.

Gord Wilson, president of the Ontario Federation of Labour, hopes

that such appeals to taxpayers are starting to wear thin. “People want to see something that’s fair,” he says, reflecting on what he believes is the changing psyche of his home province. ‘We’re still getting pummelled, and we have been for the past 15 years,” he says. “But we’re starting now to show signs of working out of it.”

With DALE EISLER in Calgary and CHRIS WOOD in Vancouver

LABOR UNREST

Number of working days lost to strikes, in millions

10

9

8

7

6

5

4

3

2

1

0

1980 1981 1982 1983 1984 1985 1986 1987 1988 1989 1990 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996

Wilson is currently leading the fight against the Conservative government of Premier Mike Harris over its controversial Bill 136 legislation, which would place a temporary ban on civil service strikes. “People are beginning to put credibility in the institution of the trade union movement as one of the factors in society that helps to level out the disparity,” he says. ‘There is something different happening here.” It’s not American-style, he says. Or at least not yet. “In the United States, they’re starting to mount a wave. We’re just starting to develop a bit of a ripple.”