Year of the power play

Warren Gerard March 5 1979

Year of the power play

Warren Gerard March 5 1979

Year of the power play


Warren Gerard

Canadian labor has arrived at the precipice: 1979 will be a turbulent year of partisan politics, strikes and confrontations. It’s the year that labor has the chance to become a potent political force in the nation. But to do so it must produce more than angry words in the coming federal election. And it will take more than face-saving at the bargaining table to impress its own members. Labor has to be a winner in 1979. The alternative is to roll over and play paper tiger, as it always has in Canada, and that could lead to a U.S.-style demise—a house of labor divided.

In fact, it was only a short time ago that Canada’s trade union movement resembled little more than a nursery room full of squabbling brats. The unions were noisy in their dealings with each other and with Big Business. They did not present a united front. No one would have called them Big Labor. That was a term reserved for the fat cats with the cigars, limousines and brickbats working the street south of the border.

But with no fanfare and little notice,

a dramatic change has taken place. South of the border the trade union movement has been given the pink slip. Membership has fallen to 20.1 per cent of the work force, the lowest level since World War II. In fact, U.S. unions have lost more than half a million members since 1974, while in the same period, six million jobs have been added to the economy.

To some observers it’s simply a reflection of the Americans’ ingrained distrust of all institutions, but for labor, the signs have been on the outhouse door for a decade or more. The unions lost sight of the fact that social and economic health are the same thing: they were little more than Uncle Toms in the civil rights movement; they supported the Establishment war in Vietnam—a support best demonstrated in New York City when construction workers in hard hats, resembling a horde of humorless Archie Bunkers, beat up kids and war protesters. In California, it wasn’t George Meany walking arm in arm with César Chavez along the historic byways of the grape boycott: it was Ethel Kennedy. When it came to supporting the women’s movement on

such kitchen issues as equal pay for equal work, the unions lost much of their appetite. The past decade saw union leaders murder each other and go to jail for defrauding their members. The leadership remained stale and Geritol-fed—best typified by Meany, the 84-year-old patriarch of American labor. Worse still, in 1979, few appear capable of taking his place.

But in Canada it’s different. The leadership is young, cocky, ambitious, and best typified by Dennis McDermott, the flashy 56-year-old president of the 2.3million-member Canadian Labor Congress (CLC), who, by the way, did walk arm in arm with Chavez in the grape boycott. There has been a shortage of burning social issues for Canadian labor to rally around, although the unions, especially in the public sector, have shown more appetite for the women’s movement than their American brothers. The real threat in the past three years—a threat that has put iron into the movement’s blood—has been wage and price controls. Unions were

limited in what they could offer their workers and an increasing number of layoffs slightly reduced the number of people in unionized industries. Yet during this time, when unions had much of their clout taken away, membership actually increased at a rate of 2.6 per cent a year, mostly in the white-collar sector, and in 1978, unions, including another one million workers not affiliated with the CLC, represent 40 per cent of 5 Canada’s industrial and public-service

workers, compared with 33 per cent a decade ago when the CLC had 1.6 million members and 500,000 other unionists were not affiliated with the CLC.

Yet the events of the past three years—including labor’s one day of glory on Oct. 14, 1976, when a million workers walked off their jobs to protest controls—have done much to unify the movement, albeit in Band-Aid style. There have been serious, almost fatal regressions, such as the sight and sound

of McDermott’s mouth fully unzippered as he accused Jean-Claude Parrot, the slight, morose president of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW), of taking “ego trips” and indulging in “infantile revolutionary claptrap” after he led the 23,000 ill-fated posties into ambush and an illegal strike.

The two have an important ideological difference—so important, in fact, that it could lead to a serious split in the labor movement. Parrot—and a

growing number of publicservice union leaders are sympathetic to his methods—will take his willing membership (Parrot listens carefully to his membership) into illegal confrontation with government if necessary. It’s becoming the alternative for civil servants without the right to strike and for that increasing number of workers who are being designated essential-service employees. But McDermott and most labor leaders, especially in the industrial sector, which has more bargaining rights than the public sector, believe that even an unjust law must be obeyed. Their answer is to change the government that made the law.

Thus McDermott has committed the CLC to supporting the New Democratic Party in the coming election. Labor in the past has done little more than make pronouncements urging workers to vote NDP; it cost the hall space. The outcome has been that only 20 per cent of trade unionists voted NDP, the other 80 per cent voted Liberal, Tory and whatever else was going. But this year the CLC is putting its money where its rhetoric has always been. It’s sponsoring nationwide education seminars and organizing sessions for workers at an unspecified cost, although the federal grant of $2 million a year for five years for CLC

educational purposes will no doubt be used for political organizing.

“The indications from all over the country,” McDermott says, “are that workers are finally understanding what we have been preaching for years—that you can’t separate bread and butter issues from social and economic issues.” He’s putting a lot on the line. There’s little time to effectively organize middle-class-thinking workers into a cohesive socialist force. When it’s all over, when the hay’s in the barn, he has to show that the CLC has delivered a union

vote—certainly more than 20 per cent— to the NDP. Some observers say the party must gain 10 or 12 more seats to convince anyone that labor had something to do with it. But labor’s message is clear: the Liberals must go, and if the Tories replace them, then Labor wants a minority government, with the NDP holding the balance of power.

Ed Finn, resident guru of the labor o movement and spokesman for the Cana-

dian Brotherhood of Railway, Transport and General Workers, believes McDermott is taking a gamble, but sees no alternative if labor is ever to become Big Labor. He thinks that many of McDermott’s political adventures will be dependent on how the unions do in this year of tough bargaining.

“We’re going to see a fairly significant rise in the incidence of strikes and lost production,” Finn predicts. “Last year it looked like we hit seven or eight million man-days lost, which is almost three times the previous level, but this year we could hit 10 or 12 million mandays lost. It’s quite conceivable. The public sector is perhaps where the main clashes will come.”

“It’s a very big year on the bargaining calendar,” says Bill Kelly, the bulbousnosed federal assistant deputy labor minister, a former union man with a big reputation as a Mr. Fixit strike mediator. “We’re coming out of this control period and it’s unknown what will happen. Some unions will want to catch up. Others had wage increases rolled back by the AIB and some of them look on that as an IOU.”

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau has already indicated his concern after a peep at the writing on the wall. He has warned business about excessive profits, probably to impress labor, and he has even hinted at a return to wage and price controls—not before an election, mind you—if wage increases climb into double-digit numbers. Yet, with workers thinking about catch-up and calling in their lOUs, it will be an almost impossible trend to stop. Bell Canada has given nonunionized workers a 12per-cent raise, CP Air pilots received up to 16 per cent the first year and 10 per cent in the second of a two-year contract. Engineers on the Great Lakes received 27 per cent over three years. Uranium miners in Ontario have rejected a 41.9-per-cent wage increase over three years. In fact, this year at the bargaining table is an election-year nightmare. About 1.25 million workers are up for contract renewal, including heavies such as the grain handlers, West Coast longshoremen, St. Lawrence seaway workers, railway workers, blue-collar public-service workers, steelworkers, now on strike, and the United Auto Workers. It will be a miracle if they settle for less than 10 per cent—Trudeau’s magic double digit—especially after wage settlements over the past three years have been lower than the rise in the cost of living.

The public-service sector, at the municipal, provincial and federal levels, will be where the most visible strikes and confrontations occur. Grace Hartman, president of the 251,000member Canadian Union of Public Employees (Canada’s biggest union, growing at a rate of 1,000 members a month) predicts confrontations for 1979. The reasons are three-fold: the federal and provincial governments seem to have an agreement to keep wage increases at between five and seven per cent; a catch-up trend in bargaining is inevitable, and governments

are whittling away at the right to strike.

In British Columbia, for example, the provincial government has imposed a five-per-cent pay freeze on municipal and school board employees, and has broadened its Essential Services Disputes Act, thus giving fewer workers the right to strike. Civil servants in Ontario have no right to strike. Nurses in Ontario, who also don’t have the right to strike, received a wage settlement of four per cent last year. “But I don’t think they’ll stand for that kind of settlement this year,” Hartman predicts.

The message is clear: municipal, provincial and federal governments, including Quebec, will be tough in bargaining, and if such issues as national unity (or separation) and leadership don’t inspire the electorate, the politicians can reach into their bag of tricks and come up with the old standby of pay increases for public servants. It may become an issue.

But there’s another issue facing labor this year. It could be the sleeper, an issue that could mobilize labor like no other, including wars on the hustings and battles at the bargaining table. It is Bill C-22, which if passed by Parliament, would virtually eliminate collective bargaining as it is now known. Bill C-22—unionists are calling it Catch22—proposes a system of comparing privateand public-sector wages. It would bind conciliators and arbitrators to use a computer comparison system, imposing similar contract terms on workers doing similar jobs in the public and private sectors. Bill C-22 has the taste of 1984 about it. Negotiators could sit across a table from each other and submit their proposals to the computer, which in no time at all would disgorge a binding settlement.

The bill is designed to keep publicsector wage increases down, but the real Catch-22 comes from private-sector unions. Finn calmly talks about it as a conspiracy. “This gives governments at all levels a vested interest in keeping the private-sector wage levels down and there are a number of ways they can do that, not only by exhorting private-sector employers to follow suit, but by openly or pervertedly withholding certain government benefits, government subsidies and so on to private-sector employers.”

McDermott has sounded labor’s warning on Bill C-22. “We’re doing our best to persuade the government that Bill C-22 should be sidelined, but if it isn’t, we’ll be mobilizing the public sector for concerted action. The government might find itself facing a common front of public employees, backed by the private-service unions in terms of material support.”

This could be, at last, labor’s year. V