7/29/07

Canadian dysfunction: All CUPE'd up

The taxpayers of Vancouver held hostage. The City of Toronto forced into budget crisis. Calgary teetering on the brink of municipal labour unrest. Montreal headed for a major metro-wide service-destroying city workers' strike later this year. For all this and more we can thank the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the all-powerful radical labour group that uses strike threats and political power to hold real control over most government services across the country. All reform of city services is paralyzed. Essentially no privatizations take place in Canada, thanks to CUPE leader Paul Moist's relentless dissemination of scare-mongering stories and misleading research.

Mr. Moist landed in Vancouver on Wednesday to show his support for his striking, dues-paying members and to push CUPE's latest public negotiating gimmick -- wages and benefits that supposedly would give city employees enough compensation to allow them to live in expensive Vancouver. What this means in dollar terms isn't stated, mainly because it's just a public relations ploy. A CUPE radio commercial compares Vancouver workers to Olympic slaves in ancient Greece. "The slaves of ancient Olympia could afford to live where they worked, Vancouver civic workers cannot," says the commercial. "Tell Mayor Sullivan and council civic workers deserve a fair contract."

Good luck to Mayor Sam Sullivan. He's trying to fight CUPE, but he cannot win. With the 2010 Winter Olympics looming, the union will legally extort another fat deal. They've already rejected a 10% wage increase over 39 months --a city offer that covers the period up to just after the Olympic closing ceremonies. If the Mayor wants that bonus, he'll have to pay.

It's the way things work. Paralyzing strikes are the CUPE norm -- ritual extortions of wage gains, new benefits and favourable work rules. If no strike has occurred -- as in Toronto in recent years -- it's because the Mayor is a union man who doesn't want to damage cozy relationships with union bosses. Why endure a strike when you can give the union what it wants and move on to the next tax increase?

Toronto CUPE, after a fake frazzle over a possible strike in 2005, secured a new contract that was described by the Toronto Star: "Workers will get wage increases averaging 3% a year over the four-year term, plus a crack at getting back work that's now contracted out, and improved language on seniority rights for temporary workers who make up 20% of the membership." Today Toronto has a budget crisis. Wages make up 50% of the city's operating budget.

If any city employees in Canada have ever been laid off, it's not prominently registered in any public record: jobs are for life. Featherbedding and crony-ism are widespread. CUPE locals, depending on the city, dictate what work gets done and who does it.

City bureacracies are swamps of petty, costly regulations, many brought in to satisfy union-led campaigns. Toronto famously instituted a labour-intensive restaurant rating system that serves no purpose except to expand union workloads.

Canadians have no idea of the scale of CUPE's power and costly influence, thanks in part to willful media blindness. With rare exceptions, union-city labour negotiations are reported like sporting events. Rhetoric and posturing from both sides get detailed treatment, actual issues are never explored, and in the end a settlement is reached followed by ritual post-mortem blather to determine who "won" and who "lost," who "gave up" what phony demand to achieve some alleged compromise. Usually both claim victory. End of story. It's all just a media game.

Rarely, if ever, reported is the process by which CUPE extends its vice-grip control over city work -- moving garbage, building subways, operating pools or planting flowers -- and prevents any significant moves to cut costs or improve service.

For a glimpse into CUPE's control over urban life in Canada, consider the story of Montreal West, the tiny suburb in the metropolis's

west end. Home to only 5,600, the community is newly part of the unionized CUPE machine, the result of the twisted politics of Montreal's 2002 multi-city urban amalgamation and subsequent de-amalgamation.

Prior to its forced merger with the City of Montreal, Montreal West employed 15 workers affiliated with another union. The workers mostly lived in Montreal West, local people with local roots. With amalgamation, those workers became forced members of CUPE Local 301, the City of Montreal's notoriously thuggish employees' union. Even after de-amalgamation in 2006,Montreal West is stuck with CUPE, thanks to a provincial deal to buy off the powerful city union.

How CUPE operates is described in part in a recent letter to citizens from Montreal West council, including Mayor Campbell Stuart. It asks: "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" Answer: the union won't plant them.

The small community, which now employes 18 people, is part of a massive 6,500-member union with a contract that covers more than 100 different job classifications. Under the contract, employees are only required to work within extremely narrow job descriptions. "There are no designated 'gardeners,' for instance -- and so no flowers are planted unless the union allows a qualified employee to work outside his limited category."

The impact on Montreal West is costly. Town management can no longer assign the most appropriately skilled person. The union rep now makes all the job calls "based on whatever tactical criteria suits the union that day."

"Restricting what individual employees can be asked to do essentially cuts our town's available workforce by nearly half. In order to pick up town garbage bins, TWO men are required: one to drive the truck and one to empty the pail. SIX men (30% of our entire department) are required to repair a sidewalk: one to drive a 10-wheeler, one to use a backhoe, one to drive a pick-up with supplies, two to construct wooden frames, and one general helper. If the union rep allows, three employees could agree to perform the combination of complementary tasks necessary, but they cannot be required to do so."

Mayor Stuart told me that, as a result of these and other rules, Montreal West's city services are at a standstill. And then there are seniority and other issues. "Jobs are 'bid on' by seniority each day, rather than assigned by the [City] Director on the basis of skill. This union process takes between 30 to 60 minutes every morning, and often results in highly inefficient allocations. For instance, if a worker's selected job finishes at 2 p.m., he cannot be assigned another task without potentially triggering a new 30-to 60-minute bidding process for the whole workforce!"

The union in Montreal West, says the Mayor, is "run with an iron fist. They intimidate workers in my town as much as they try to intimidate town administrators." Flower planting was threatened unless a certain worker was assigned the job, for example. "We were told quite explicitly that no flowers were going to be planted until we hired the guy they wanted."

Under CUPE rules, Montreal West would have to increase worker numbers to 28 to get the work done. The union also wants wage increases of between 6% and 8% over the next three years. All of Montreal is now prepared for a CUPE 301 strike later this year.

Montreal West is a microcosm of what goes on across Canada. The specifics and scale are different, but from Vancouver to Toronto to Montreal, CUPE runs our cities along the same lines.

(canada.com)

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