Labour council off radar on workers' rights

As Premier Mike Harris and his Tories are steamrolling over the rights of workers in Ontario, the Northumberland Labour Council is nowhere on the radar. There could not be a better opportunity for local union activists to speak out, yet all we have heard in the past week is silence.
Nobody should be surprised. While various local union shops have negotiated contracts in recent history, there has been little activity beyond this. The once powerful and visible unions have disappeared. It is hard to imagine today the impact workers had on the community.

The fight over the unionization of the former Nicholson File plant in Port Hope brought the United Steelworkers of America into the headlines in December 1963 with a successful drive. But a subsequent strike in September 1964 brought to a head a problem. Thirty-three of the employees did not sign union cards. Newspaper publisher Foster Russell, who owned the Cobourg Sentinel-Star championed their right not to strike. His articles and editorials inflamed the union. Union members gathered in Memorial Park to burned him in effigy.

Today, unions would be hard pressed to get members out to a barbecue, let alone a protest of this magnitude.

Local unions have been falling by the wayside for some time. In Cobourg, former Councillor John Lindsay tried each year for three terms in office to bring in a simple bylaw to have a flag lowered in front of town hall to remember dead and injured workers. Council repeatedly canned the idea without any fear of reprisal either directly through lobbying or at election time.

The union movement in Ontario reached its peak in the 1960s and 1970s. Strikes were regular occurrences and unions were winning sizeable contracts for their members. It was an exciting and vibrant time for the labour movement. But with the recessions of the 1980s and 1990s, downsizing and globalization, unions have taken on a different role. Rather than fighting for better wages, they tried to keep workers from being laid off or attempting to soften the devastating blow of plant closures.

Take the example of the closure of Budd Plastics in Cobourg. When the plant announced it was closing, the union tried to provide a bridge for workers seeking employment – an important and useful service from the union. But it was unable to protect some workers when Tarxien Components walked away from its employee’s benefit package after one of its subsidiaries sought bankruptcy protection. It is truly a double-edged sword. On one hand an important service was provided to workers facing unemployment. On the other hand, the union is unable to stop a corporation from coldly walking away from its responsibility to former employees.

But what has also happened is unions have become more like the corporations they often attack. Union leaders have six-figure incomes. Larger unions swallow up smaller ones. Politics play as large a role as any aspect of union activity. The Canadian Auto Workers fight with the Canadian Labor Congress for control. Meanwhile, frontline members stare at their paycheques watching dues disappear and with little or nothing in return. A conversation with workers often solicits a visceral dismissal of the union rather than dedication.

There are plenty of explanations why Northumberland Labour Council is all but disappeared. Plant closures in the county have left union memberships lower than in the past. Many workers commute outside the area and their union representation is not in Northumberland. Also, as is the case in so many organizations, a few people are left doing the work year in and year out without anybody stepping forward to replace them. Hence the necessary re-engerizing and renewal process that re-invigorates an organization does not take place.

What is truly frightening is the proposed changes to Ontario’s labour laws are far more than a substantial attack of unions. The changes being rammed through Queen’s Park strike at the heart of employee rights. Three pieces of legislation will nearly eliminate worker’s rights to have a union. Employers will be able to block the ability of workers to unionize and employers will be given more power to make people work longer hours without having to pay overtime.

What is most disturbing is that both sides in the debate are missing the point as far as individual workers are concerned. Rather than making the workplace better, the Tories are just swinging the pendulum farther in the opposite direction. If there is to be true fairness in the workplace, then let employers post both information on how to decertify and organize a union. Instead of just opening up the system to abuses that could mean people would be forced into working 60 hours a week, then hire more people to police the system and respond to reports of abuse. Or, leave the system as it is and license those who want something outside the current legislation.

And let’s not forget some of the more positive aspects of the bills such as extending parental leave, forcing union leaders publicly declare if they make over $100,000, raise fines for employers who breach the legislation from $50,000 for first offence to $100,000 (and go as high as $500,000 for third offence).

In the meantime, could the local unions get their act together? It is time to come out of the closet. Dust yourselves off and do more than meet monthly. Flex those muscles that have not been used for a while. Otherwise, important public debates, like the one over this legislation are going to pass us by.

First published: Dec. 6, 2000

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