Archive for the ‘wages and benefits’ Category

Requiescat in pace, Madeleine Parent, activist and Canadian legend

March 14, 2012

It seems tragically appropriate that Madeleine Parent, one of Canada’s greatest union organizers, died on March 12, during International Women’s Month, at the age of 93. She was a great supporter of women’s rights and most especially those of workers. Her efforts improved the lives of thousands of textile workers in Québec.

My first encounter with Madeleine Parent was as a twentysomething reporter in Sudbury, Ontario, another union town with two major nickel companies, where she had been invited as a speaker. The fire and passion she exuded at the age of 75 were mesmerizing. I learned of the great battles in Valleyfield, Québec and her clashes with 1940s and 1950s Premier Maurice Duplessis, a corrupt conservative intent on keeping the province well-entrenched in the 19th century and who accused her of being a Communist. Duplessis had Parent arrested five times, accusing her of seditious conspiracy after a strike in 1946, under the aegis of the United Textile Workers of America (UTWA). The strike had pitted the union against company, church and state. Madeleine Parent was convicted the following year, and received a two-year prison sentence she would not serve. The courts granted her an appeal in 1954. During the 1995 proceeding, the jury acquitted her in 30 minutes.

As a result of the false charges of communism against her, however, the international headquarters of the UTWA fired her in 1952. The activist then established the Canadian Textile and Chemical Union (1952) and the Confederation of Canadian Unions (1969) along with her husband, Kent Rowley. Following her retirement in 1983, she continued to speak out for the rights of immigrant and native women.

It speaks to the chasm between the two solitudes of Canada (English and French) that the news of Madeleine Parent’s death was reported immediately in Québec papers’ headlines, and in radio and television news, while hardly a peep was discernible in national English-language media. This is despite the fact that Parent’s actions and legacy go well beyond Québec borders.

Unlike Mother Jones, another great union leader, Madeleine Parent espoused the role, importance and demands of working women throughout her life. She was a titan amongst activists. She will be sorely missed, and well-remembered.

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Occupy This: What Would Saul Alinsky Do?

October 26, 2011

Though both Americans and Canadians suffered the label of “anemic” as protests initially raged through the Arab world against dictatorship, then through Greece as a reaction to the debt crisis, the Occupy movement which has sprung up recently isn’t just American-born; it’s also one in a long line of U.S. demonstrations. The labour movement on our side of the pond may not be as robust as elsewhere, such as Scandinavia, but it had its moments. Canada has almost three times the rate of unionization as the U.S. does, but the latter may just be due for a resurgence.

This said, the one meme the media keeps picking up from the targeted financial elite is “oh, the protesters don’t have a single issue.” As professional organizer Saul Alinsky could have told you – and did, in his seminal work Rules for Radicals – that’s simply not the point. In fact, he stated that “multiple issues mean constant action and constant life.” They also create alliances, which the disenfranchised will always and forever need. The one per cent is certainly right, in that what it has created is far from a single issue: it’s a multi-headed hydra.

However, if the Occupy movement has more than one concern, the policy implications of being part of the 99 % are quite clear: tax the wealthiest to pay for social programs. In Canada, banks alone managed to hide $16B in assets from 1993 to 2007, according to an UQAM study. This doesn’t even begin to cover personal income. On the government side, as Murray Dobbin pointed out, Paul Martin cut $100 B in income taxes from 2000 to 2004 as minister of Finance. Then, his Conservative counterpart Jim Flaherty largely created his $50 B deficit by slashing $ 60 B in taxes, which he then argued he had to compensate by slashing programmes. Sound familiar? If you’re thinking of the Tea Party and the showdown over the U.S. debt ceiling, you’re right. Canada thought of it too.

The time is ripe for the continent, and the world, to broker a new New Deal for everyone. There won’t be demand for anyone’s goods otherwise, let alone any fair play.

The psychology of exploitation: unpaid overtime

November 14, 2010

Many companies try to get around the Employment Standards Act. I remember being told, in person, something different from what was in the employee’s manual. When I asked why, I was told that oh, they just wrote that stuff in the booklet because of the law.

Nice. Those pesky laws will make you write down just about anything.

In short, I got the very strong impression that I would be encouraged, no doubt “for the sake of the team”, to work unpaid hours outside of my shift.

It’s usually hard to get all your work done on certain days without staying longer than the end of the shift. If you do, it will be unpaid labour, never mind unpaid overtime. And if you don’t, your coworkers are very likely to resent you and blame you for the work being late, the client getting upset and the higher-ups taking it out on the staff, instead of blaming the company for breaking the law, putting everyone in an unacceptable situation and playing everyone off against each other.

I’m angry at this kind of set-up. If you refuse to help companies disregard labour laws, you are “not being flexible” and have “a negative attitude”. Meanwhile, just how “flexible” is the company itself by refusing to pay for the additional hours staff is working? The company is the one stealing time.

Every employer should get this: a deal is a deal and the law is the law. This applies to the corporation, just as much as it does to anyone else. Maybe I don’t like those pesky laws either. Should I just help myself to the hardware? Just how “positive” is a company that places its multi-million dollar comfort above the low-wage survival of its employees? How many companies out there nickel-and-dime their employees by sanctioning them if they’re five minutes late, even if those very same people stayed late to finish something the day before?

Should you resist your exploitation, your coworkers are also encouraged to see you as “selfish”, “difficult” and “not a team player”, someone who is “causing them problems”, because they will now face the pressure to pick up the slack created by the company’s refusal to adapt, with its multimillion dollar budget at its disposal, and its insistence on making its low-wage employees do all the adapting at their own expense instead.

If all of us just said “no”, the company would have to back down and understand that a) work will be late; or b) if the client gets upset too often about this, staff will have to be paid overtime, with or without the client paying for it, since it’s a question of keeping customers and besides this, more work means more orders and more orders mean more income, which clearly will pay for expenses. Ergo, there is no victim in this case, and no excuse.

Should you go along with your exploitation, then you are “responsible” and “reliable”, of course… in addition to being exhausted, resentful and stressed out. Perhaps the company and your colleagues will appreciate you more, but your pocketbook, health, family and friends will not.

Obviously, these interpretations of staff behaviour can have a tremendous impact on people’s future, so how “voluntary” is the unpaid labour supposed to be? Should the company decide you are rocking a little too hard, it is 100 per cent certain they will come up with a million reasons for your dismissal which, ostensibly, have nothing to do with the issue of overtime hours. Of course. The employer defines the terms of employment. They add anything they like. You can be found to infringe on a dozen rules no one has bothered to enforce for the past 20 years. Therefore, legal provisions against retaliation can be difficult to uphold, at least in a court. Retaliatory measures are not, however, difficult to illustrate through media exposure, of which there really ought to be much, much more. Just the chronology of someone saying something about a labour law issue, then starting to get negative performance reviews, should be a clear tipoff to anyone.

In Ontario at large: law and practice

It isn’t the first time I’ve been in this type of situation and many have been even worse. One of the “top five” in the bad boss sweepstakes did a lot of things, including trying to discourage me from taking a lunch break. I put a copy of a booklet on Ontario Labour Laws, with the 30-minute break requirement highlighted in yellow, on my desk so it was highly visible to everyone. I was never bothered again, at least not about that. However, he still insisted on making me work an average of 60 hours a week or more, all additional hours unpaid, until I was so exhausted I went on stress leave and never came back. At the time, I still didn’t realize salaried employees are entitled to overtime pay as well as hourly-paid workers. This was the case even under the Harris Conservatives. It’s certainly the case now. If I didn’t know, how many others don’t?

I’m not alone. Far from it. According to the Lang Michener labour law firm website, approximately 20 per cent of employees in Canada work overtime, working around nine extra hours per week on average. Half of these people don’t get paid for the overtime they put in. These are the official findings. I’m betting there’s a lot of unofficial abuse that no one is calculating and that can’t be determined.

Moreover, as the firm points out, “there is a widespread misconception that salaried workers are not entitled to overtime pay. According to the Human Resources Professional Association of Ontario, 44.75% of organizations said their non-management, salaried employees are expected to work overtime without pay. Whether an employee is paid on an hourly or salary basis is not criteria for overtime entitlement. Salaried employees have the same entitlement to overtime as hourly employees.”

However, confusion arises because of exceptions to overtime pay protection, which apply to certain professions (lawyers, doctors, architects, landscapers, engineers, IT professionals) or “employees in a supervisory or managerial position”. Maximum number of hours is not the same as entitlement to overtime pay. Even if employees agree to work more than the 48 hour maximum, up to a 60 hour maximum, they are still entitled to overtime pay.

One of the biggest sticking points is reclassifying employees as managerial. Just when, legally, is someone a manager? As it turns out, apparently not just because their company gives them the title: “According to the Human Resources Professional Association of Ontario, 29.85% of organizations did not understand the legal definition of “manager” for overtime purposes.” Supervision of other employees and the authority to hire, fire, promote, transfer or discipline employees are key criteria, but not the only ones. Managers must have additional powers, such as the power to make decisions about company policy and planning, as well as budgeting and purchasing power, amongst other criteria.

Another big exception is contract employment. Some companies hire individuals as subcontractors to avoid the headaches of payroll. If they pay a fixed sum per contract term, they can also avoid paying overtime, or even avoid paying minimum wage. According to a Star article in 2007, “one in four self-employed earn incomes of $20,000 or less.” However, as noted by Leanne E. Standryck of L B & W, contractual employees must pass a four-point test in order to be considered independent and not employees. At issue are: 1. the extent to which the company controls the performance of the individual’s services; 2. whether the individual owns the tools and equipment used in rendering the services; 3. whether the individual has a chance at profit; and 4. whether the individual has a risk of loss. Should a company be judged an employer, there are costs to trying to circumvent legislation this way. Still, too many employees are unaware of their rights; and, judging from employer practices, too many of the latter don’t seem to understand there is a clear test a judge can apply.

Remedies to exploitation

Class action lawsuits against firms such as KPMG, BMO Nesbitt Burns, CIBC and others over unpaid overtime have made headlines in the last few years. However, the case against the CIBC was shot down and this decision was upheld. It is now being appealed.

Lawsuits are not the only means to target employers who try to violate the law. It’s also possible to file a complaint with the Employment Standards Branch of the Ministry of Labour. Despite the ceiling on possible compensation ($10,000), any given complaint opens the door to more investigation: “Government Employment Standards Officers looking into one employee complaint have the authority to investigate the employer to see if there are any further violations against other employees, even if no other employees have made a complaint… Of course, the Ministry of Labour also conducts surprise workplace spot-checks, both at random and in response to anonymous tips.”

Violation of the Employment Standards Act in Ontario can lead to a fine of up to $100,000 for a first offence, and $250,000 and $500,000 for second and third offences. Each offender was named, so that at least potential employees can check to see if the firm offering them employment will be an opportunity, or a nightmare. The Ontario Ministry of Labour also issues a press release with every conviction and names the offending employer. Plus, if nothing else, the investigation takes time and effort. It probably costs the company about as much as, say… paying fir overtime.

‘Poor No More’ changes one life, seeks to change more

May 14, 2010

The film Poor No More, which screened in Toronto in late April and early May, positions itself as more than just a documentary. It’s also a call to action and has apparently helped one of its subjects get benefits after 20 years of being classified as a casual worker. Vicki Baier, a worker with the LCBO in Stratford for 20 years, got breast cancer and had to get chemotherapy on her lunch breaks and on weekends because of a lack of sick leave. The single mother is one of 600,000 part-time and temporary workers in Ontario and her story featured prominently in the film. According to Poor No More executive producer Dave Langille, who was on hand during an April 26 screening along with director Bert Deveaux, host and narrator Mary Walsh and local MP Olivia Chow, a rough cut of Poor No More was used during the LCBO strike negotiations of 2009. Baier now has more benefits, if not a full package.

In a letter to Tory MPP Frank Klees during strike action in June 2009, OPSEU Local 284 member Barry Ince asked “are you aware that fully 60 per cent of LCBO employees are casual and make less than $20,800 a year on average? …Yes, out of a work force of 6,000 there are 2,400 good permanent full-time jobs, but the LCBO is on a mission to replace them with more casuals and $10.00 per hour “term” employees….”

Meanwhile, LCBO profits are 1,5 B $ last year, the film organizers stated. As a whole, there were $6 billion in tax cuts distributed to Canadians in lieu of child care policies, housing supports or other means of eradicating poverty. Across the country, 7 million Canadian workers earn less than $20,000 a year. In Ontario alone, 2 million people live in poverty, organizers observed.

The film itself presents an array of  statistics to support its argument. It states that 20 per cent of Canadians earn less than $10 an hour (the minimum wage in Ontario has just been raised to this level). Many of these are women, several of them single mothers. Women in low-paying jobs are especially hard-hit by a lack of benefits. As soon as there’s a child-care issue they may be fired; if they don’t attend to child’s needs, however, they could lose the child; if they’re fired because of attendance issues due to child care they can’t get Employment Insurance; they then have to go on welfare.

Lest the film seem overly dramatic, additional research and perspective from south of the border is available at Moms Rising. “The wage gap between mothers and non-mothers is greater than between women and men — and it’s actually getting bigger. Non-mothers earn 10 percent less than their male counterparts; mothers earn 27 percent less; and single mothers earn between 34 percent and 44 percent less.” – no doubt, the numbers in Canada are comparable.

Canadian governments have consistently ignored United Nations recommendations for poverty reduction; see, as one example, the effect this has on women.

Meanwhile, the issue of increasingly precarious work that Poor No More illustrates has been documented elsewhere. Within the page of Work in Tumultuous Times: Critical Perspective (Vivian Shalla and Wallace Clement, eds.), one may read that “despite increasing levels of both formal and informal education, and rising attainments of knowledge and skills by workers, under-employment remains a critical problem affecting millions of Canadian workers according to research by David Livingstone and Antonie Scholtz. They observe that the under-utilization of knowledge and skills in the workplace is particularly common among the working classes of service and industrial workers in the Canadian labour market, and conclude that “Canada appears to be one of the more extreme cases of under-employment among advanced capitalist economies”.”

This growth in precarious employment is worldwide. According to The Employment Conditions Knowledge Network (EMCONET) Final Report on 20 September 2007, “in wealthy countries, the outcomes of these changes (to employment conditions) have been a reduced welfare net for the unemployed and disadvantaged; job losses in the public sector; growth in job insecurity and precarious employment; a weakening (in practice) of regulatory protections; and the historical re-emergence of an informal economy, including home-based work and some child labour” (p.102)

Meanwhile, in Work, Employment & Society, Vol. 22, No. 2, 351-362 (2008), the article “Skills, education and credentials in the new economy: the case of information technology workers” by Tracey L. Adams and Erin I. Demaiter argues that “the “new economy” is characterized by risk and uncertainty, with experiences of job loss, insecurity and stress.”

As part of the antidote, filmmakers argue tax cuts and tax evasion must end. Research is quoted from a May 2008 study by UQAM professor Léo-Paul Lauzon showing that Canadian banks avoided up to $16 billion in taxes by using tax havens outside the country. This would represent 30 % of their total tax bill. In contrast, Bank of America’s tax evasion would amount to 2 % of its total bill.

Meanwhile, tax cuts have seriously eroded government revenues. The film references author and broadcaster Murray Dobbin, former columnist with  the Financial Post and Winnipeg Free Press and a board member of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, who observed in June 2009 that “first it was former finance minister Paul Martin with his $100 billion income tax cut over five years starting in 2000. Then it was Jim Flaherty in 2007 with $60 billion over five years. Add to that the $12 billion lost each year by lowering the GST from seven per cent to five per cent and the $50 billion is no mystery. It was an inevitability whenever the next recession hit.”

As another part of the solution, Poor No More proposes that Canada could follow the Swedish model, which is characterized by consensus building amongst government, business and labour. The level of union membership in Sweden is very high – at 71% – although it has fallen from its peak of 86% in 1995. Women have an even higher rate than men, at 81 % in 2007. The net result is far less poverty than Canada.

Meanwhile, the Canadian unionization rate has varied from 31.6 in 1970 to 28.4 in 2003. Where a casual worker in Canada was forced to get chemotherapy during her lunch breaks, casual workers in Sweden get sick pay from the second day of illness. Even McDonald’s workers are unionized. Childcare is almost free and the parental leave total of 480 days can be split between the mother and father. Sweden has a maximum fee policy: the maximum rate is 1,260 SEK (about $170) a month for the family’s first child (based on full-time care). Usually a family pays less for their second and third child – around 0.25% or 1% of the family’s income.

However, the question remains: can the Swedish model apply to Canada? According to a 2007 PPI article, “(Amsterdam labor expert Jelle) Visser suggests the most powerful reason for their (Swedish unions’) success is that Scandinavian and Belgian unions offer different services. They function more as “career protectors” than as “job protectors” – while they do negotiate with businesses, their primary missions are to manage extensive unemployment benefit funds, and provide their members with training and placement services”. Meanwhile, “Eric Sundstom, a recent PPI associate now with Sweden’s Social Democratic Party observes… that Swedish trade unions always have accepted that inefficient factories must go; they focus on the protection of their members (retrain them for new jobs when the factory has to close, instead of defending jobs that will have to go sooner or later anyway). On the other hand, unions with smaller participation rates tend to defend the specific job (and not the worker and what is best for him or her in the long run).” (Ibidem)

Can this model apply in Canada? Are Canadian unions willing to have governments download their existing responsibilities onto them, including the administration of unemployment benefits as well as career reorientation? Is government willing to consider offloading delivery while transferring funding?

Meanwhile, another potential obstacle could hinder wholesale adoption of the Swedish solution in Canada: according to some research, the increase in precarious work in and of itself serves as an impediment to unionization rates. The Employment Conditions Knowledge Network (EMCONET) Final Report (op. cit) states that “both in developed and developing/poor countries, precarious employment relations have reduced the proportion of unionized workers, especially since the 1980s” (p. 39) and “the strengthening of business interests, the atomization of companies, precariousness, short-term work, and rotation of employment do not exactly contribute to the constitution of strong union actors.” (p. 115) In addition, “the growth of precarious employment has weakened mechanisms for worker voice or involvement (workplace committees and health and safety representatives) under OHS legislation, in some countries exacerbated by declining union presence (Baugher and Timmons Roberts 2004; Johnstone et al. 2005). In developed countries, government responses to these issues has been belated and fragmentary” (p. 106) (ibidem).

What is left to fight poverty in Canada? The main answer seems to be political will. Poor No More speaks to 5 million Canadians affiliated with unions and seeks to encourage mobilization and organization. “We must organize and take from the powerful. They have never freely given to us,” asserts director Bert Deveaux, who sees the 40s and 50s as better for the labour unions in Canada while rights have been eroded in the past 15 years. To him, appealing to young voters and overcoming their invisibility at the polls is crucial. Younger workers are also most likely to be marginalized and in low-paid jobs. Meanwhile, the rest of the Canadian population clearly has a stake in changing our circumstances.

For more information on the film and how to get the DVD, see the website at: http://www.poornomore.ca/