Published in the Vancouver Observer | February 14, 2012 | Circulation 115,000 unique monthly visitors
A major union is warning of a possible labour battle ahead if the provincial government doesn’t “come to its senses” as B.C. heads into 250,000 contract negotiations this year – including 43,000 hospital workers who started bargaining on Tuesday.
David Black, president of the Canadian Office and Professional Employees Union (COPE) local 378 – which represents 14,000 B.C. workers, including those with no contracts at BC Hydro, BC Transit, ICBCand Capilano University – spoke to the Vancouver Observer about the role of today’s labour movement in the Age of Austerity.
“The old adage is, ‘You prepare for the worst and hope for the best,’” Black said in his Burnaby office. “That’s what we’re doing.
“We are preparing for some sort of a dispute with the government, but seriously hoping that the government does come to its senses, and starts to reverse some of these policies that have caused British Columbians so much trouble in the last decade.”
Spring labour disputes
Those policies, he said, include increasing privatization, fewer union protections, the carving up of crown corporations and a hardened attitude towards unions from the BC Liberals. Although he insists his own union’s membership – which is half-public, half-private sector workers – has weathered the past decade of workplace changes, he and other labour leaders are frustrated with the government insistence there is not enough money.
“They turn around and tell the people providing services of British Columbia, ‘Oh, sorry – there’s no money for you – there’s money for all these other things, there’s money for myself to get a wage increase, but there’s no money for you,’” Black said. “That’s just not right, and I think there’s going to be a very interesting situation this spring, because certainly our members are not going to put up with that, and I’m certain other public sector workers are not going to put up with that.
“They’re tired of getting blamed for government mistakes.”
Black’s comments come as hospital workers began negotiations on Tuesday for 43,000 contracts, and a five-month teachers’ job action – in which educators have refused to fill out report cards or administrative duties since September over government refusals to budge – drags on in the province.
But the coming conflict – which seems inevitable barring a change of provincial rhetoric and its “net-zero” spending mandate – points to wider societal issues, Black told the Vancouver Observer. With the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) warning recently of rising economic inequality, British Columbians should be worried, he said.
“We’ve had our minister of finance here in British Columbia saying he’s not concerned at all about the growing gap between the rich and the poor,” Black said. “It’s a strategy they’ve deliberately set out to accomplish through tax cuts. That’s what I think is the major challenge not just facing unions, but the public – all Canadians.”
Pension cuts and austerity budget
The problem, of course, isn’t merely provincial. With Prime Minister Stephen Harper announcing changes to Canada’s pension system during recent remarks before the elite World Economic Forum in Switzerland – including raising the spectre of pushing retirement age back by two years – both the BC Liberals and federal Conservatives have embraced the logic of austerity measures and spending cuts.
“None of these things are inevitable,” Black said. “They’re choices that Harper is making.
“Stephen Harper has the money to spend billions and billions of dollars on new prisons when the crime rate is declining, and yet he wants to take away peoples’ pensions. Those are choices, that’s not inevitable. It’s the role of unions to say, ‘Look, there is another alternative here.’”
State of the unions in B.C.
So what, exactly, is the state of B.C.’s labour movement today?
“For a long time, unions didn’t change and didn’t want to change,” Black said. “Things have changed a lot in British Columbia in the last 11 years, and I think that unions have started to change.
“(With) public sector workers, peoples’ perception is they’re paid too much, or that their pensions are too good. Well, I actually think that’s a sign of success of unions. For me, what has happened is that some of the perceived problems with unions are they’ve become a victim of their success. Unions have become somewhat institutionalized – they have a guaranteed source of income of dues, unions don’t even have to collect dues from members like they used to have to, the employer collects it all on their behalf. I think the average union member has lost the idea of what it means to be a union member.”
But Black said that, with many labour leaders nearing retirement age, a new generation of workers are set to take over and transform their unions – calling for a wider role for labour organizations in workers’ lives, broader services provided to members, and better use of communications technology.
“What we’re seeing now – what we’re experiencing – is there’s a lot more interest from young people, and there are a lot more young people taking leadership,” Black said. “It’s quite exciting actually.
“Our unions are much more diverse than they have been in the past, and we need to start reflecting that diversity… And the new people coming into the workforce, they have a very different attitude. They’re not willing to put up with as much as our generation was around arbitrary rules, the sort of commitment they need to make to either their employer or lifestyle. So when they bump up into those things in the workforce with the employer, they gravitate towards the union as an avenue to deal with that.”
It’s the role of unions, Black argued, to be open to the changes demanded – and to evolve as younger and more diverse members rise in the ranks. Appointed by COPE’s executive in 2001, the union’s long-time president looks back on his decade in leadership as a time of excitement and change.
One major development during his tenure was the Canadian unions’ acrimonious split from the U.S. Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) after the latter attempted to raise Canadian member dues – and ended up suing the upstart Canadian branch.
Black chuckled as he recalled attending the 2004 convention in Florida where Canadian leaders declared their autonomy – bolstered by nearly 75 per cent support from the membership. When the American union tried to serve legal notices to prevent the split, Black and other Canadian delegates were advised by their lawyers not to accept the paperwork – and went into hiding in the hotel.
“We were stormed by process servers with lawsuits from a Florida courthouse,” Black said. “We had no idea who these people were – sheriffs, process servers, or what these lawsuits were for. They literally burst doors open and chased people around the hotel.
“We got advice from Canadian lawyers right away, ‘You don’t have to cooperate with these people.’ So we were hiding from them and smuggling food around the hotel. It’s very funny now, but it was very exhilarating at the time!”
Eight years later, Black is optimistic about the role of the labour movement in society. Despite declining membership in Canadian unions, he said Canadians are increasingly concerned with economic equality and protecting themselves from financial crises.
“The rich are getting richer, the middle class is falling further and further behind,” Black said. “That’s something that unions stand up for.
“If you look across the world, in places where the income disparity is the least is where they have strong union movements. In fact, where democracy is strongest, you’ll find a strong union movement. In places where they don’t have unions, you find the most extreme gap between rich and poor.”