The revolt of the middle-class worker


February 23 1976

The revolt of the middle-class worker


February 23 1976

The revolt of the middle-class worker


At the height of the national mail strike last fall, the Prime Minister’s Office was having problems. In the first place, the fledgling Anti-Inflation Board was awash in confusion, struggling at the same time for both credibility and office space. The PMO was also twitchy over the arrival in Ottawa of 2,292 delegates to the Liberal Party convention. Many of the faithful (19.2%, as it turned out) were less than enchanted with the actions of The Leader. And, of course, there was mounting pressure to do something about the 22,000 striking postal workers.

In the middle of all this, early one Thursday morning, one of Canada’s best labor reporters was awakened by a phone call. The young man on the other end said he was calling on behalf of the Prime Minister. What Pierre Trudeau wanted to know, said the PMO man to the labor writer, was this: Who are the top labor leaders in the country and what are they thinking? What are the really big labor issues? What is the rank and file really thinking? How is the labor movement going to react to price and wage controls? The labor reporter was

more than somewhat puzzled by the simplicity of the questions and said so. Didn’t the government have a department, Labor Canada by name, that could provide the answers? Well, yes, said the PMO man, but the PM wanted the straight goods from an experienced journalist.

In fact, Joe Morris, president of the Canadian Labor Congress, had delivered the “straight goods” a few weeks before. In a closed-door discussion with ministers and government officials about the controls program, Morris was overheard to shout: “This is one goddamn law I’m prepared to disobey no matter what the cost.”

In charity, the lack of solid intelligence in the PMO about the labor movement is understandable. For years, communication between big government and big labor has been grounded more in ritual than reality. Like two scorpions in a bottle, the two have circled each other across a plain of confrontation, suspicion and bitterness. Every spring the leaders of the CLC present their case to the Prime Minister and his cabinet in the barn-like ugliness of the railway committee room in the Parliament

Buildings, and invariably the cabinet ministers nod gravely and later tell reporters how pleased they are at the frank exchange of views. Both sides know the meeting is as ceremonial as the changing of the guard outside Government House. In this context of mutual ignorance, the early morning questioning of a reporter by a prime ministerial aide is not so surprising, but with labor shouting open defiance of the law, an inflation rate of 10.8% and more than a million workers negotiating contracts this year, it is definitely worrisome. The 2,875,464 working men and women in the Canadian trade union movement have grown markedly more militant in the past decade, and the government’s lack of understanding in this, the first year of wage and price controls, portends one of the most turbulent periods in labor history.

Dennis McDermott is international vice-president and director for Canada of the United Auto Workers of America. A comfortably chunky man of medium height, he is a walking testimonial to what unionism has achieved for the blue-collar

worker. He sits in a spacious macraméand-walnut office in the new one-milliondollar UAW Toronto headquarters, his seethrough blue shirt unbuttoned to somewhere above the belly line and a heavy gold chain bracelet just above a large gold ring. He is 53. He quit school early to work in a factory which made farm equipment. When he was 29, he joined the UAW. NOW, with 150,000 members in the union, he is perceived by the public as a “labor boss,” but despite the puñchy talk and the toughguy statements McDermott is credited with the best brain in the Canadian labor movement. It is said he could have the presidency of the CLC by picking up the phone. It is further said that McDermott, along with Lynn Williams of the Steelworkers, are the CLC. McDermott speaks: “There has been an almost overnight radicalization among white-collar and professional workers, like the teachers. They are behaving like a union, finally. They are finding out that in an economic crunch, status no longer buys groceries. It’s nice to be a white-collar worker in a job that pays nickels and dimes, but there’s Joe Truck Driver next door to you and he owns a lot more material things. He has a car and a cottage that you don’t have. Professionals are waking up and saying ‘Fine, we have status and sabbaticals but we need bread.’ So they are shopping around. And they are picking the traditional trade union route.” As these new white-collar unionists have signed up, they have changed the character and the conduct of the traditional labor movement. They have brought with them new energy and a tough-minded sense of what they want. Last year they wanted more. The push of inflation coupled with an angry determination by unions to leapfrog each other led to strikes in every sector of the economy. At one time or another, somewhere in Canada, these people were on strike in 1975: policemen, aircraft workers, firemen, bus drivers, construction workers, doctors, journalists, beer workers, supermarket clerks, meat cutters, postal workers, telephone operators, medical technicians, plumbers, electricians bartenders, nurses, teachers, pulp workers, even the people who print money at the

Canadian mint. For a period last fall, it looked as if the province of British Columbia might shut down altogether. Vancouver supermarkets were closed; the forest industry which bankrolls the provincial economy was shut down; garbage was piling up in some cities because the garbagemen were out; some residents in remote areas were without heat because of a strike by gas workers; and no beer was being sold. Nationally, when the final figures are tabulated, Canada will have lost 10 million man days to strikes in 1975, more than any year in the country’s history.

While more and longer strikes are a measure of the toughness of unions, the changes within organized labor are subtler in tone. It is not simply a matter of militancy. The new unionist is younger than the union member of 15 years ago. He is better educated than his postwar antecedents. He has never know privation; in his life things have always got better. He is not terribly interested in the big labor battles of the past that won the 40-hour week and overtime. He wants to improve his lot, he wants to improve it now, and he is willing to become militant to do it. He is also l\pically a white-collar worker who, 20 years ago, would have shunned the idea of collective bargaining as a way to better his i economic position. The Canadian Union of Public Employees, a white-collar union, jiijdij is signing new members at the rate of 1,000 _

a month. Grace Hartman, leader of CURE’S I U ;

The hands that rock the labor movement

For all its adherence to democratic principles, power in the Canadian labor movement has always resided with a few leaders. At present they are such people as Lynn Williams of the Steelworkers, Dennis McDermott of the United Auto Workers, Grace Hartman of the Canadian Union of Public Employees and Claude Edwards of the Public Service Alliance of Canada. Reflecting the changes taking place in the movement itself, the next generation of leaders are apt to be white-collar (rather than industrial), articulate, tough-minded and activist. The new breed of labor leader will be younger and probably better educated. These are some of the men and women who will very likely take over leadership of Canadian labor in the next few years:

Richard Cashin, 39, Newfoundland’s bestknown and most articulate labor leader, is president of the Fishermen, Food and Allied Workers Union and secretary-treasurer of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labor. He became involved in organized labor after a brief career in politics as a Liberal Member of Parliament from 1962 to 1968. Cashin’s critics—and there are many—say he is using his union position only as a stepping-stone back to partisan politics, a charge he denies. Jean-Claude Parrot is probably best known as the unsmiling, intractable chief negotiator for the Canadian Union of Postal Workers during the last strike-torn negotiations. He is

1954. His power base was the Montreal local of cupwwhich sent him to Ottawa as chief shop steward. In 1974, he was elected vice-president of the national union. He is articulate, wary and militant.

Don Taylor, 45, has been active in the trade union movement for 25 years. He joined the United Steelworkers of America while working as a miner in Cobalt, Ontario, and held various union posts before his present appointment as assistant to the national director for Canada. He has strong ties to the international trade union movement and has worked actively for the CCFNDP. He is a member of the federal council of the NDP, the Economic Council of Canada and the board of directors of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. He holds an honors English degree from Queen’s University.

Shirley Carr has been touted as a potential successor to CLC president Joe Morris. She was born in Niagara Falls where, in 1960, she became involved in union politics with CUPE. Later she served as Ontario president of CUPE and in 1974 was elected as full-time executive vicepresident of the Canadian Labor Congress. In

1971 she ran unsuccessfully as an NDP candidate in the Ontario provincial election. Unalterably opposed to price and wage controls, her priorities include helping unorganized workers and such non-monetary bargaining issues as maternity leave and safety conditions.

George Semeniuk, who has been active in labor’s fight against the Anti-Inflation Board, is president of the Saskatchewan Federation of Labor. He is 37 and has been a member of the Canadian Food and Allied Workers since 1956, holding various local and regional posts. He became involved with the provincial federation in the early Sixties.

Reg Basken, 38, has held just about every elective office in the labor power structure in Alberta. His home union is the 2,300-member Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers’ International Union. He was appointed president of the Alberta Federation of Labor in 1972 and is a mem-; ber of the CLC’S executive council.

John Fryer, 37, is general secretary of the ám Government Employees’ Union and one of the most broadly educated career trade unionists in the country. He has degrees from the London School of Economics and the University of Pittsburgh, specializing in labor economics. In 1965, he became research director for the Canadian Labor Congress in Ottawa. Two years ago he was elected to the CLC'S executive council as a vice-president at large. He has written extensively on labor matters and has solid connections with international labor groups.

where: “We’ve got a new militancy in people who years ago would not even join a union. We have the hospital workers on the bottom of the wage scale going on strike for the same reasons.” Last April in Manitoba, 70 government-employed doctors went on strike for higher fees, the first time in the province’s history that medical men had struck. Even more unlikely as union members are university professors who, historically, were loathe to form staff associations, let alone bargaining units. And yet this month the teaching staff at York University will become the twelfth in the country to seek certification. One York professor, looking at the 39.2% two-year offer to Toronto’s secondary-school teachers, said: “For the first time in memory, high-school teachers would be paid more than university professors. That’s our incentive.” The high-school teachers themselves, 8,600 strong, pounded the pavements for more than two months in their first strike before the government ordered them back to work. Even the 13,000 members of the RCMP have been touched by the union bug. Two years ago, prodded by collapsing morale and an outdated discipline structure, 4,000 Mounties risked dismissal by attending organizing meetings which ultimately came to nothing. “The new unionists are bringing some changing attitudes in the labor movement,” says CUPE’S Hartman. “They bring new knowledge, and superior education. They are able to look at the more complex aspects of the economy and help guide other unions.” These new attitudes manifest themselves in different ways. A few years ago, for instance, it was almost unheard of for rank-and-file workers to reject an agree-

ment bargained by their negotiating committee. Now such rejections are common. “The leadership is being pushed and pushed hard,” says Arthur Kruger, principal of the U of T’s Woodsworth College. “You get bursts of militancy in a period of inflation. Guys in a plant are more willing now to hit the bricks for an extra six, seven, eight weeks to get what they want, and you didn’t have that before.” There are also more strikes. Between 1967 and 1971, only 5% of all contract negotiations in commercial industries ended in a walkout. But in 1972, the figure rose abruptly to 10.9%. The new militancy has also seen the return of the one-year collective agreement. It took unionists 20 years or more to develop the two-and three-year contract, but with inflation and the AIB’S power to overturn settlements, the multi-year agreement, which provided some stability in the economy, has become a thing of the past. And so has the concept of gearing wage demands to profits. Now the industrial unions go all out for high settlements, no matter what.

How did this change in the labor movement come about? Labor theorists say that, for one thing, there has been a breakdown in what they choose to call “orbits of coercive comparison.” This used to mean that if Company x settled for 9% and Company Y went for 9%, then the workers over at Company z felt they should get about the same. No more. John Crispo, Professor of Industrial Relations at the U of T, says, “The fundamental problem is that there is no agreement on who should get what share of the national pie. The old income hierarchy is shot. There was a time when everybody knew where they fit in the pecking order. The only agreement I find these days is that every group has decided that it isn’t as high in the pecking order as it should be. Everybody is in it for what they can get.” No one knows his “place” any-

more. The idea that income earned should be related to the job done is dead. Income now is geared to what others make and what the cost of living is, no matter how menial the work. Larry Brown, executive secretary of the Saskatchewan Federation of Labor, puts it this way: “It doesn’t make sense for someone doing a shit job to be paid less for it. If people can’t be proud of their job, get some satisfaction out of it, the least they want is to be be well paid for it.”

The thrust of the new unionism began in the mid-Sixties during the administration of Lester Pearson. If any politician touched off the tinder that turned the labor movement in new directions it was Pearson, and he did it with two far-reaching decisions. In 1966, workers on the St. Lawrence Seaway were unhappy. They were threatening a strike which would tie up cargo in the port of Montreal and drastically affect the shipment of wheat to much needed export markets. Within days of the strike deadline, Pearson announced a government offer—a 30% increase in a twoyear contract. In an era of 5% and 6% settlements, it was dramatic: one key group in the economy had been favored over others, which had an effect on later arbitrations, particularly in dealings with workers in the public sector. Arbitrators saw the willingness of the federal government to settle on a substantial figure rather than endure a troublesome strike, so they followed suit. After all, the government, as employer, was different from private industries in that it had a theoretically limitless pool of resources—public money.

Tbe second turning point came a year later, in 1967, when Pearson announced that Canada’s federal civil servants would henceforth have the right to strike. It seemed ironic at first glance that the public

Looking ahead to another

'Year of the Strike’

Against a backdrop of price and wage controls, 1.6 million workers, more than half the country’s unionized work force, will be seeking new contracts in 1976. Among them are workers in a number of key industries, indicated below, in which strikes would disrupt the country as a whole. (In some cases, contracts expired in 1975 and bargaining has been carried over into the current year.)


Number of

Workers Expiry Date Covered of Contracts

Auto (Ford, GM, AMC, Chrysler)

Rail (nonoperating employees)

53,830 September

94,460 December/75

CBC (technicians, stagehands, professional employees)






Retail Food Stores




Public Service:

Federal (Government & NWT) 52,545

Provincial (Government, Health & Education) 4,085 (BC) 54,780 (Alta.) 5,700 (Sask.) 30,220 (Man.) 99,930 (Ont.) 500 (Que.) 10,465 (NS) 21,125 (NB) 530 (PEI) 21,915 (Nfld.)

Municipal (Government, Police,


All Year

All Year

service should ask for and be given that right. Traditionally, public servants had occupied positions of prestige. More important, they had job security, extra holidays, sick leave and pension plans before anyone else. But beginning in the Fifties, pension plans and sick leave became a common feature of collective agreements signed in the private sector. There were longer and longer periods of full employment, which made government job security seem less important. Industrial workers were moving into the middle class, which formerly had been the preserve of the white-collar worker. And the salary of the industrial worker had caught up to and overtaken the civil servant. As a result, the public servants, with their newly won power, began to increase their demands. Workers in key areas went out on strike. People who could really tie up the country—grain handlers, postal workers, air traffic controllers—found they could strike effectively. The settlements got higher and higher. “The government acted irresponsibly,” according to Arthur Kruger. “It was a lot easier to give in to the unions than to go through a lot of labor unrest. So the government invariably threw in the extra 3% or4%.” Other civil servants tried to follow suit. For two years, the 55,000 members of the Civil Service Association of Ontario waged an advertising campaign costing $700,000 in an effort to gain the right to strike. They lost the battle but won a greater say in the makeup of appeal and arbitration boards. Reflecting its new militancy, the association last October changed its name to Ontario Public Service Employees Union.

The public perception of “big labor” in Canada is embodied in the Canadian Labor Congress, the biggest and most visible labor organization in the country. But it is only as strong as its members want it to be. The real power lies with the strongest of its 115 affiliates, unions such as CUPE, the

United Steelworkers of America, the UAW, the Canadian Paperworkers’ Union and the International Association of Machinists. The CLC, says one labor spokesman, is “labor’s chamber of commerce,” meaning that while it speaks out on matters of national importance, it is the affiliates that deal with such day-to-day matters as negotiating collective agreements, conducting strikes and handling grievances. According to the leader of one of the most powerful CLC affiliates: “The CLC is really the repository of the limited amount of power the affiliates are prepared to give up. There is nothing to prevent the affiliates from defying the congress. It has all the problems of a loosely knit federation.” But although the affiliates may successfully defy the rulings of the CLC and quarrel with its leaders, few are willing to risk possible expulsion from what trade unionists like to call “the house of labor.”

The CLC is governed by a 30-member executive council, four of whom are full-time officers. The man at the top is Joe Morris, president of the CLC since 1974. It is to Morris, a stocky, 62-year-old former logger, that reporters run for comment on a federal budget, a Throne Speech or a new government program such as the despised wage and price controls. “Joe Morris is the guy who usually says most of the right things,” says one union public relations man. In the Forties, Morris built a reputation for himself in a battle to wrest control of British Columbia labor from Communist unions. Before his election as an executive vice-president of the CLC in 1962 he was a BC regional director for the International Woodworkers’ of America. Prior to the 1974 CLC convention he was chosen by the executive council over the then secretary-treasurer, Bill Dodge, as the official candidate (the vote was 10 to nine). At the convention his only opposition was an unknown rail union delegate from Nova Scotia. But Joe Morris is by no means a Canadian Mister Labor in the sense of

AFL/cio pontiff George Meany in the United States. For one thing, Canada has 11 labor law jurisdictions, compared with one in the United States. For another, the CLC expends more of its energy keeping peace among its affiliates. For example, in 1974 leaders of the International Building Trades secretly withheld the 20 cents a month per capita CLC dues in a battle over autonomy for Canadian sections of international unions. The building trades leadership resented the standards. The dispute was resolved after Morris met with leaders of the international unions. “The leaders of the CLC have their hostilities and their rivalries,” says Arthur Kruger, “but these guys do know each other. There is some degree of union cooperation at that level. The guy in the steel mill couldn’t care less about a jurisdictional dispute or some damn thing 500 miles away, but Lynn Williams [of the Steelworkers] does care because he’s involved.”

If the CLC is given to squabbling in public, that all seemed to end October 13 when Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau went on television to announce price and wage controls. “There was a period when we were too complacent,” says Shirley Carr, the energetic executive vice-president of the CLC. “Certainly that has changed with the nonsense of the prices and wages board where we have seen nothing but solid militancy across the land, militancy as trade unionists, as working people and as ordinary citizens.” In a sense, the price and wage controls have magnified the importance of the CLC, because more than in recent years labor now needs a strong spokesman. “The key to labor defiance of the controls lies in public perception,” according to John Crispo. “It’s a question of how fast the public perceives of this program as being something of a con job. If they begin to think that this is a one-sided program that is bearing down on one sector of the community more than others,

then the stage will be set for labor defiance of the program.” The AIB’S failure to deal with prices in the first three months of its existence has only reinforced labor’s view of controls as a “con job,” and with 1.6 million workers going into bargaining in key industries this year the atmosphere is ripe for an all-out CLC confrontation with the government.

Labor leaders across the country are uneasy about trouble ahead, but one of the gloomiest forecasts involves Quebec, where contracts covering close to half the province’s labor force come up for renewal this year. According to Marcel Pepin, president of the Confederation of National Trade Unions, Quebec will face in 1976 an economic crisis similar to the hard times of the Thirties. His colleague, Louis Laberge, the firebrand president of the Quebec Federation of Labor, says the whole social structure is in danger of crumbling: “The day is coming when the government will get so many people angry, people like pensioners, those on welfare or the minimum wage, those deprived of the right to negotiate contracts, that the whole thing will just blow up. Faced with measures like the 10% freeze, a worker today has only two choices: either he sits there and lets the government walk all over him or he gets up and fights.” There is general agreement in Quebec that the workers have to fight for their rights, but not everyone agrees that radical action, such as the general strike of 1972, is what is needed. At the root of the militancy there isn’t the same refined class struggle ideology that motivated the union leadership in Quebec for the past decade. It’s more a feeling among people who have been reasonably well-off in the past that their government isn’t protecting their interests in the face of today’s economic pressures.

Over the next few months, the CLC will fight on two fronts: first, it will continue to battle the government on the subject of

controls and, second, it will try to do something to stem the rising public resentment of the labor movement. Two recent Gallup Polls indicate Canadians are more anti-labor in their feelings than ever before. In the first poll, 78% of those polled felt strikes in vital public services should be curtailed. In the second, 67%, or two out of every three Canadians, thought union leaders for the most part are “troublemakers and agitators.” Such a view, if widely held, will cost the CLC dearly in terms of public support. A showdown could be touched off by one of three sets of key negotiations—the railway unions, the auto negotiations and agreements involving members of CUPE. If railway workers balk at the guidelines they can call a legal strike, tie the country up within a month and force the government to act. The 54,000 auto workers, negotiating in the fall, could receive an international settlement higher than 10%, which would put the Anti-Inflation Board and the cabinet in a precarious position. Rejection of the agreement might mean a prolonged auto strike—or worse. Last month UAW president Leonard Woodcock warned that any AIB ruling that destroyed wage parity between Canadian and American auto workers could jeopardize the Canada-U.S. auto pact. Because of its powers and its rhetoric, CUPE could be the catalyst for outright confrontation with the government. Agreements between municipalities and CUPE are expiring across the country. In Metro Toronto, for example, municipal workers could effectively shut down the operations of the city and its five boroughs.

This much is now certain: the federal government is committed to price and wage controls, the labor movement is as unmoving in its opposition to them, and a confrontation is inevitable. When it happens, 1975, for all its turmoil, will look like a year of tranquility in comparison. MICHAEL ENRIGHT/CORRESPONDENT REPORTS