Labor’s Fight To Survive

RAE CORELLI July 13 1987

Labor’s Fight To Survive

RAE CORELLI July 13 1987

Labor’s Fight To Survive


Almost from the day they began in mid-June, the rotating strikes against Canada Post Corp. by the nation’s 20,000 letter carriers were precedent-setting—and troubling. The Crown corporation, vowing to stay open for business, became one of the few federal agencies ever to hire strikebreakers.

Until last week’s tentative settlement, day after day, on television, in magazines and newspapers, Canadians saw scenes of pitched battles at mail-sorting terminals and post offices across the country, as police waded into pickets trying to block vehicles carrying mail and workers temporarily hired to do their jobs. Dozens of people were injured and scores were arrested. At the outset, labor leaders had predicted the strikes would cause chaos in the postal service. But while the mails were slowed, they kept moving.

The Letter Carriers’ Union of Canada (LCUC) was the latest Canadian union to be bruised in a head-on* collision with the new militancy of employers—public and private—across the country (page 35). Increasingly, collective bargaining is characterized by management demands for wage freezes or rollbacks and for more control over the workplace—the main issue in the postal strike. At the same time, unions are mounting battles against new labor legislation in some provinces, defending workers dislocated by company restructuring, particularly in the airline industry, and fighting each other over U.S. influence in the Canadian labor movement. Said lawyer Michael Lynk of the Canadian Brotherhood of Railway, Transport and General Workers (CBRTGW): “Canadian labor is going through its most tumultuous period since the Great Depression.”

Pressures: Employers claim that they need concessions to improve productivity and meet low-cost foreign competition. But some labor leaders say that the trade union movement is under siege because governments and employers have become emboldened by the openly anti-union policies of Britain’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and President Ronald Reagan. There is ample evidence that organized labor in Canada, its bargaining strength severely diminished by the

recession, is now beset by enormous pressures—not only from outside but from within its ranks as well.

Rates: For one thing, union membership as a percentage of the civilian labor force has been declining steadily since 1982, down to 29.7 from 31.4. Between 1960 and 1975, the nonfarm workforce increased by 73 per cent, and union membership rose almost 100 per cent. But between 1975 and 1986 the growth rates drew closer together: while the labor force rose by 276 per cent, union membership increased only 29 per cent. Some areas experienced particularly serious declines. In recession-wracked Alberta, the number of jobs in the construction industry filled by union workers dropped to an estimated four per cent compared with about 80 per cent five years ago.

At the same time, there has been a dramatic shift in the nature of labor negotiations. Traditionally, contract talks began with unions submitting demands for improvements in collective agreements, to which employers would then respond. But increasingly, employers are taking the initiative by coming to the table with demands for concessions to permit cheaper and more flexible, efficient operation.

Freeze: Canada Post fits that pattern: its negotiators asked the letter carriers to deliver more mail, accept a oneyear pay freeze and agree to the layoff of workers made surplus by changes in corporate policy. Said LCUC President Robert McGarry:

“We won’t give up one job.” And until the tentative settlement, the letter carriers resumed the rotating strikes that had been suspended since the government appointed veteran labor arbitrator William Kelly to mediate the dispute on June 29.

Other prominent unionists, includ-

ing Canadian Auto Workers President Robert White, said that there will have to be some flexibility in the workplace as a result of new technology and new product lines (page 34). “But,” he added, “that will happen more by evolution than by taking a meat axe to the working conditions already contained in agreements.” There was little flexibility in evidence on June 23, when

4.000 employees struck Toronto-based aerospace manufacturer de Havilland Aircraft Co. of Canada Ltd. The company, formerly a money-losing Crown corporation that the federal government sold to Seattle, Wash.-based Boeing Co. in January, 1986, had proposed such things as weekend shifts and mandatory overtime to achieve greater efficiency. But White, whose union represents the de Havilland workforce, accused Boeing of “trying to impose a U.S. system of labor negotiation that is totally foreign to this country.” Responded de Havilland spokesman Colin Fisher: “This is not a clash of cultures; efficiency is an issue that crosses international boundaries.”

There were other signs of labor’s tough struggle for survival. In British Columbia, where union strength in a sluggish economy has declined to

450.000 from its 1982 high of 500,000 members, Premier William Vander Zalm’s Social Credit government

passed controversial labor legislation in late June. It provides for an Industrial Relations Council empowered to recommend an end to strikes that are against “the public interest.” Leaders of the 257,000-member B.C. Federation

of Labour pledged to defy the law even if it meant going to jail. And Colin Gabelmann, the opposition NDP’s labor critic, said that Vander Zalm’s goal was to “destroy collective bargaining.” In Alberta, the provincial government last month introduced a new labor code that would restrict secondary picketing. It contained no response to labor’s demand—made in the wake of last year’s violent six-month strike by 1,080 workers at the Gainers Inc. meat-packing plant in Edmonton— that strikebreaking be prohibited, as it is in Quebec. Shirley Carr, president of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), mobilized national support for that strike, including a partly successful boycott of Gainers products. Even so, when the union agreed to a four-year contract on Dec. 14, it provided for wage freezes in the first two years. Last week David Werlin, president of the 114,000-member Alberta Federation of Labour, said that the new labor code is “regressive” and that the federation will demand changes before the bill is voted on next fall.

Chaos: Meanwhile, mergers in the airline industry have thrown collective agreements into chaos across the country. Canadian Pacific Air Lines Ltd. joined forces with the Maritimes-based Eastern Provincial Airways in 1984 and Quebec’s Nordair Ltd. in 1985. But the merged company was still trying to sort out its various labor contracts when it was taken over in turn by Pacific Western Airlines Corp. The result: a new company, Calgaryand Vancouver-based Canadian Airlines International Ltd., which company chairman Rhys Eyton said will likely lay off up to 10 per cent of its 13,000 employees. The Canada Labour Relations Board will ask some Canadian employees, possibly later this month, to pick a union to represent them.

Anticipating the vote, the existing unions from the various merged airlines—the Canadian Auto Workers, the Brotherhood of Railway and Airline Clerks and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers —are embroiled in a fight for survival at Canadian. Said Cheryl Kryzaniwsky of Toronto, president of the CAW’S airline division, Local 2213: “It’s a real mess.” But labor is also fighting on another

front—internally. The CLC is deeply divided by the growing antagonism between national and international, or U.S.-controlled, unions. The internationals’ share of Canadian organized labor declined to 40 per cent in 1984 from 55 per cent in 1975. As a result, Canadian leaders of the U.S.-based United Steelworkers of America have denounced the CAW’S current drive to recruit 23,000 Newfoundland fishermen and fish-plant workers. There, the fishermen’s leader, Richard Cashin, led them from the U.S.-based United Food and Commercial Workers International (UFCW) and into the CAW last March—a shift that the railway workers’ Lynk applauded. Said Lynk: “The decline of the internationals in Canada means that Canadian unions are more progressive and militant.”

Fight: The fiery, 50-year-old Cashin, a former Liberal MP, clearly shares that sentiment. According to Cashin, the U.S.-based union was too undemocratic and uninterested in Canadian autonomy. But UFCW officials have accused Cashin of “gross maladministration,” and they say that they hope that the intra-union fight will be resolved when CLC executive meet later this month to deal with a complaint of illegal raiding against White. Still, some CLC officials say privately that the congress will likely back White and Cashin, who are both champions of nationalism within the labor movement.

In fact, it has been White’s traditional objective to distance Canadian trade unionism from the U.S. labor movement, now engulfed in crisis. In 1953 U.S. unions represented 32 per cent of all nonagricultural workers in that country. But now they represent only 17 per cent compared with nearly 30 per cent in Canada. Harley Shaiken, a professor of work and technology at the University of California at San Diego, said that three factors had put labor “effectively in a state of crisis”: foreign competition, the deregulation of key industries such as airlines and “the political attitude of the Reagan administration,” which had encouraged “a growing employer offensive against labor; things will get worse before they get better.”

Indeed, John Zalusky, a U.S. labor economist, put the case for labor’s decline more bluntly: Reagan’s firing of 11,500 air traffic controllers in 1981, he said, “licensed management to take the hardest line possible.” Added Zalusky: “Even though it is a violation of the law, workers get fired for trying to form a union in the United States today.”

The outlook for labor is also dismal in Britain, where, in the face of Thatcher’s crusade to limit organized

workers’ power, union membership has fallen to a 20-year low of 10.7 million, and the number of strikes is the lowest in 50 years. Only two days before Thatcher rode to victory in the May, 1979, general election, a poll of British voters found that 73 per cent believed that trade union power would

be the new government’s greatest challenge. And Thatcher, aided by the recession of the early 1980s that siphoned off union strength, acted decisively.

Secret: Her Conservative government quickly pushed through legislation that, among other things, compels unions to hold secret ballots before strikes and for the election of union officials, and makes national unions legally accountable for the actions of their members. Then the violent yearlong miners’ strike of 19841985, which claimed 14 lives and cost the British economy $4.7 billion, seemed to persuade many Britons that labor had to be further restrained.

Against that background, many Canadian labor leaders are asking if Canada Post’s tough approach to the letter carriers reflects the influence of Reagan and Thatcher on Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. Declared the CLC’s Carr: “There is no question that there is a right-wing anti-union swing coming up from the United States. In some instances, we are at the stage we were 30 years ago—fighting to hold onto what we have won since then or fighting to hold onto the union at all.” And the railway workers’ Lynk—who said that the postal struggle was an indication of the government’s attitude-declared that unless Canada Post withdrew its demand for conces-

sions, “what we are looking at down the road in this country is industrial civil war.”

Weak: John Crispo, a University of Toronto professor of industrial relations, said that the U.S. labor movement “is now so weak that management no longer fears it.” That, he said, has led to growing exploitation of workers, and if Canadian labor did not get its house in order, “there is a longterm risk that the same thing could happen here.” In the past 20 years, he added, “the position of labor has deteriorated fairly significantly, and in many respects the labor movement is in a shambles.”

Crispo said that la-

bor’s shrinking presence in the workforce was one factor, but more destructive, he added, was the “cannibalism” exemplified by the CAW’s attempt to take over the Newfoundland fishermen. Declared Crispo: “Unions can’t seem to merge. There is much more hostility between the national

and the international unions, and there is the growing presence of the public service unions asserting themselves and wanting to run the whole show.”

War: Next to the rapid growth of Canadian-based unions at the expense of the internationals, many labor experts say that they consider the rapid growth of Canadian public sector unions to be the most important power shift inside organized labor. In 1964 188,000 government employees accounted for only about 11 per cent of the organized labor force. By 1984 their numbers had increased to 525,000, or 15 per cent of unionized Canadian workers. And Toronto lawyer Paul Cavalluzzo, who represents various unions, said that the increased visibility of public sector unions would also make them bigger targets. As a result of Ottawa’s war with the letter carriers and a crackdown on teachers in British Columbia, said Cavalluzzo, governments elsewhere in Canada “are going to start taking on the public sector unions.”

His theory may soon be put to the test. St.

Lawrence Seaway workers, whose contract expired last Dec. 31, have rejected a demand by the St. Lawrence Seaway Authority, a Crown corporation, for a five-per-cent wage rollback and a 10-per-cent decrease on health and welfare benefits. Last-ditch conciliation is scheduled to begin on Aug. 5. At the same time, Canadian National and CP Rail have asked the railway unions for 17 contract concessions, including a five-per-cent wage cut in each year of a two-year agreement. The railway unions have refused to consider concessions and could be on strike as early as this month.

Dangerous: Canadian trade unions are clearly under stress from internal discord, diminishing clout and hardline bargainers across the table, but Carr says that she is already looking ahead to other battles. According to Carr, two of the principal challenges are organizing the financial services industry, particularly the banks, and persuading governments to enact better health and safety legislation (page 33). Said Carr: “You can’t have people killed in the mines or on construction sites or being hurt by sitting next to a dangerous computer terminal screen.” Carr rejects any claim that the unions have been beaten. “Those who hope that the labor movement is dead in Canada,” said the CLC leader, “are dreaming in Technicolor.” But her statement refocuses attention on the union movement’s current struggle: preventing labor’s dreams from turning into nightmares.

— RAE CORELLI with correspondents’ reports