B.C.'s Big Labor Neanderthals

One has to wonder if some labor groups are in touch with the real world. Perhaps they are stuck somewhere in the distant past.

During my stay in the Vancouver area last week, the strike by Vancouver civic employees was very prominent in the news. Garbage is the biggest worry, according to the media; or is it? Much of the garbage collection and general waste management is handled by private companies. It is primarily the residential garbage pickup that is affected.

The library employees, who are members of CUPE, have also walked out. Big deal; most people will just buy a book or two and get by very nicely. Building inspection is a minor bonanza to engineering companies and projects are not stopping.

Builders are having their projects inspected and approved by professionals who are, quite frankly, more knowledgeable about building and electrical codes than the average civic inspector. They are actually far more qualified, in most cases, than those filling the civic positions.

The first night of fireworks over English Bay, left some garbage behind. Most people took their own garbage with them. There were also the usual unfeeling jerks that just dropped their garbage on the beach. In a rather nice civic gesture, all the people in a small landscaping company turned up at six in the morning to pick up the garbage that was left. Their motivation was to keep the beaches reasonably clean and safe for those who wished to enjoy them the next day. CUPE's reaction was that there was no way they should have done that, because they were taking away from civic jobs. Almost all people interviewed said, "that's stupid!"

Talk about lousy public relations. The comments from the CUPE leadership offended a lot of people who would have otherwise been sympathetic with the efforts of the workers. The comments about the stupid remarks made by CUPE leaders cut across all political lines. Most people, labour involved or not, thought the remarks were mean spirited. They understand that a withdrawal of services is one of the weapons employed in trying to reach a settlement, and appreciate that it is a right workers should have. What the general populace finds disgusting is the severe criticism of a group of people who only wanted to undertake a task that would benefit their city. They did so, without pay. Their only motivation was to participate in a selfless act. CUPE leadership needs to take Public Relations 101.

The other mystifying labour negotiation, and possible strike, is the Steelworkers (formally IWA) stance with the coastal forest industry. This sector of the British Columbian economy is in deep trouble. Demand for product is falling drastically and pricing is in the ditch. Mill and other closures have already occurred, and more are planned. The coastal forest manufacturing industry is noted for its poor productivity, thereby making them less competitive than the interior forest industry. It kind of makes you wonder if anybody is really using their brains. Here is an industry that has been making steady progress in a downward direction. The world has changed, but that does not seem to have registered with union members and their leaders. It is as simple as this: if a business is dropping money by the bucketful every day, does the management really care if they are shut down for a while?

Perhaps they are just stuck in the past. Change is ever with us and all of us have to adapt. We want strong companies and strong unions speaking for their workers.

We don't need stupidity on the part of either. British Columbia has moved away from the almost constant labour unrest into a prosperous economy. We can only hope the Neanderthals do not take us back to the old days.

Victor Bowman was born in Vanderhoof and raised in Prince George. He returned to this city to live 32 years ago and currently operates a consulting business.


Fierce fight anticipated in upcoming port talks

The last-minute contract agreement reached last week to keep clerical workers at West Coast ports from striking is a warm-up to a big showdown looming over the next dockworker contract.

Early next year, terminal operators and shipping lines will begin broader talks with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, whose more than 14,000 U.S. members work the docks from Bellingham, Wash., to San Diego. Four years ago, a 10-day lockout of workers paralyzed ports, ratcheted up costs for retailers and other customers and caused cargo backups for months.

The customers that rely on the ports say that if the three-year contract negotiated with the clerical workers is any indication, a fierce fight and lots of brinkmanship can be expected. The clerical workers also are ILWU members.

Big users of shipping lines "are hoping this isn't an omen of what to expect next year," said Erik Autor, vice president and international trade counsel at the National Retail Federation, a Washington trade group representing U.S. retailers. "The threat of a walkout is very troublesome because it creates a huge amount of unpredictability for retailers and other shippers who need to manage complex supply chains."

West Coast ports are critical to the economy because they handle cargo valued at about $500 billion annually, including much of the clothing, electronics, toys, and furniture that appear on store shelves throughout the U.S.

Already, a flash point is brewing over plans to modernize the ports. Terminal operators and shipping lines are preparing to introduce automated cargo-handling systems on the West Coast that will move cargo faster and more efficiently.

"Automation of cargo handling is the next big battleground on West Coast docks," says Mark Sisson, a senior port planner at Aecom Technology Corp.'s engineering-and-consulting unit. He says automating the docks at Los Angeles and Long Beach, Calif., will cost billions of dollars and take more than a decade.

The move would require major changes in work rules. The union also worries that it could result in job losses. Bob McEllrath, international president of the ILWU, says automation is a "challenge" to the union.

"We don't stand in the way of automation or technology, but we don't allow the employers to use that as a subterfuge to outsource our jobs," Mr. McEllrath said. "We want to look at protecting our work force and share in the profits that they are going to make."

Medical costs could be another sticking point. The ILWU's members, already among the highest paid union workers in the U.S. -- about 60% of longshoremen get an average of $127,000 a year -- now have 100% of their benefits paid for by the employers.

The talks over the clerical-worker contract that ended last week provide a hint at the relationship between the union and port users. The negotiations were marked by a strike threat and went nearly a month past the expiration of the previous three-year contract. In the end, the 750 workers reached a settlement, subject to rank-and-file approval, with 14 terminals in Los Angeles and Long Beach without a work stoppage. The tentative contract includes a 7% wage increase over three years and establishes a multiemployer fund to safeguard workers' health, welfare and pension programs.

The two sides point to the agreement as a sign they can work together, despite the tension. "The fact that we continued to bargain for nearly a month after the contract expired and ended up in a compromise, bodes well, in my judgment," said Steve Berry, who negotiated on behalf of the terminal operators.

For years, West Coast container-terminal operators have looked on with envy as Asian and European docks converted to automated systems. West Coast managers say they must modernize, too, or risk running out of waterfront land to move the ballooning volume of Asian imports.
[On the Waterfront]

Modernization is coming to ports elsewhere in the U.S. A.P. Moller-Maersk Group's new container terminal in Portsmouth, Va., set to open in September, will be the most automated in the U.S. Maersk, the world's largest shipping line by vessels, came to an agreement with the International Longshoremen's Association, which represents East Coast dockworkers. The Danish company says it expects its new terminal to significantly increase cargo flow and speed the loading and unloading of trucks and trains.

The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach already handle more than 210 million tons of cargo a year, and demand is expected to exceed capacity as early as 2010, according to the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce. "Ultimately, these facilities have to employ technology to handle the amount of volume that will go through them," said Jim McKenna, president of the Pacific Maritime Association, which negotiates with the ILWU on behalf of West Coast terminal operators and ship lines.

Instead of having a work crew at each of the cranes that handle containers in the yard, automated systems rely on computerized mechanisms to do most of the work of lifting, moving and lowering containers. Operators sit in a control center and are involved only at the beginning and end of each move.

Ports on the East Coast and Gulf Coast, as well as emerging container docks in Canada and Mexico, stand to benefit if labor-management conflicts on the West Coast drive shippers to find alternatives. Still, shippers are limited in their options because the biggest container ships can't fit through the Panama Canal, while sending cargo in the other direction around the globe to reach the U.S. East Coast adds time and expense.

So far, both sides are saying they don't want another port lockout, and their leaders are said to get along better than their predecessors. Contract talks also started earlier than usual. The current six-year deal expires July 1, 2008.

"We learned a lot from 2002," said Mr. McKenna. "Both of us recognize any disruption to the ports and impeding commerce will be viewed by everybody as unacceptable."


Absolutely no picket line violence in Vancouver

Striking civic workers in Vancouver continue to deny accusations of vandalism and violence on the picket lines. CUPE Local 1004 boss Mike Jackson says that kind of behavior helps no one. "We don't condone any of that action and for the city to make those allegations is completely unacceptable to us, so I believe that none of my members would do that. When this is all over, we have to get back to work and we have to have a working relationship, so it really doesn't benefit any member to do anything that's against the law." Contract talks for Jackson's union and CUPE Local 15 have not resumed yet, but talks involving library workers are continuing under a media blackout.


Teamsters in Georgia hold strike threat over kids

A bus driver strike in Beaufort County is still under consideration but so far no official decision has been made. Right now about 3,000 year-round-school students are riding buses to school each day, but come August 20th when all schools are in session, that will double. Many parents are wondering whether their children will have transportation. The district spokesman says although they're already considering alternate plans - they hope this will be resolved before a strike happens.

"We're certainly hoping that they can come to a swift resolution to whatever differences they may have," District Spokesman Tom Hudson said. "While they focus on those issues, from a Beaufort County standpoint, our focus is doing what's best for our students."

Hudson said he couldn't comment on a reason for the strike, he referred us to the Teamsters Union and First Student. News 3 contacted the Teamsters Union, which represents the drivers, and First Student but our calls were not returned.


Strikers bitter over flexibility in labor contract

As the second week of the coastal forestry strike winds down, the mood on the picket line suggests this is just the tip of the iceberg and the forest industry could be facing a long-term fight.

Sheltered from the beating sun and 30-degree weather by a small cloth tent, striking Steelworkers Union members at Western Forest Products' Chemainus sawmill were upbeat and relaxed yesterday. But despite the buoyant mood the workers made it clear they are determined to make changes to the agreement that has ruled the coast for the last three years. "I think this could be a long one, a lot of the guys believe in what they are doing this time and the companies want what they want pretty bad," said Warren Chadwick, a trimline operator who has been at the mill for 10 years but in the industry for much longer than that. "Nothing was resolved last time, and it's that lack of resolution that's the problem."

Coastal forestry workers had a three-year contract imposed on them by a government-appointed mediator in 2004, which, among other things, afforded forest companies more flexibility in the way it scheduled work.

Both sides of the current dispute admit the job action has nothing to do with wages or benefits.

And while there are a number of issues separating the two sides, the strike appears to hinge on scheduling, which the imposed agreement allowed companies the right to do without consulting employees.

The union claims it has meant unsafe conditions and hours that take too much of a toll in physically demanding jobs while robbing families of normalcy as shifts can change on a whim. The companies counter they need the flexibility to reduce costs as they face the challenge of a strong Canadian dollar, a 15 per cent surcharge on exports to the U.S. market and an American housing industry in a severe slump.

"Any problems that existed [in 2004] exist now, only things have been [magnified] through that time frame," said Chadwick.

Shawn Holmes, who has worked as a trimline operator for nearly 10 years at Chemainus, said the union is more galvanized as the strike has progressed and is in it for the long haul.

"We believe we are on strike for the right reasons. We got rooked last time and I think we are stuck in, there's a feeling this is going to be the one that is either going to change things or not change things," he said, adding they don't want another mediated settlement.

"Government sure didn't do us any favours last time and I don't think we're looking for them to do it again," Holmes said. "But they are so far apart I don't know what's going to happen."

That doesn't mean these workers are content to put in their shifts on the picket line and pick up their strike pay which is a small fraction of their regular cheques.

Many of them admit they are sick and tired of mill closures and being in and out of work. Some are weighing their options outside the forest industry.

"I had an interview yesterday," said Holmes. "And I know there's a good percentage of us who are not going to come back if [the strike] lasts any longer than three or four months."

For Randy Robertson, it would be the end of three generations working in the industry.

"Realistically I will not be retiring from this industry," he said, noting he has 20 years of worklife ahead of him. "I would say this is the last stop, the time to get off the bus because that's what its come to.

"The way things are going I'm being pushed out the door," he said, adding he has considered leaving the industry for years. "And there are good paying jobs out there right now in construction."

This early in the strike, the financial effects of being out of work have not yet hit hard, but they will on both sides, said Chadwick.

"Anyone on a picket line knows this is not a win-win, it's a lose-lose situation," he said, noting companies will lose market share and get stuck with inventory, while workers are left without their paycheques.


AFL-CIO seeks release of Iranian unionists

The International Transport Workers' Federation and the International Trade Union Confederation have called on trade unions around the world to protest the imprisonment of two Iranian labor leaders. The two are Mahmoud Salehi, a founding member of the Saqez Bakery Workers' Association and Mansour Osanloo, President of the Syndicate of Workers of Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company.

Mr. Salehi was arrested on April 9th on charges relating to organizing a peaceful demonstration on May Day 2004, and for his trade union activities. Mr. Salehi was supposedly convicted of "conspiring to commit crimes against national security" and was sentenced to one year in prison. He is currently in prison in Sanandaj, the capital of the western Iranian province of Kurdistan, with no access to his lawyer or his family. Amnesty International says Mr. Salehi's medical care is inadequate, and his health is deteriorating.

Mansour Osanloo was first arrested in December 2005, after leading a protest against poor working conditions, low pay, and the government's refusal to recognize the bus driver's labor union. Over the past year and a half, he has spent more time in than out of Evin prison.

Mr. Osanloo's most recent arrest occurred on July 10th. He had just returned from a trip to Europe where he briefed trade unionists on the struggles he and his colleagues in Iran have endured. Abducted from a bus, he was violently beaten before being imprisoned, once again, in Evin.

Heba El-Shazli is regional program director for the Middle East at the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center in Washington, D.C. She says the Iranian government is acting against independent labor leaders out of fear:

"The day to day life of Iranians is increasingly becoming very difficult. And what these workers are asking for is the right to negotiate, to bargain, the right to be able to advocate and to form an independent union. And I am sure that many other organizations would like to do the same. These are basic economic rights, and they're being forbidden. They're being stopped. But the government will not succeed."

In a written statement, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack called recent actions by Iran's clerical regime "an alarming trend of intolerance toward any expression of independent views by the Iranian people." He called on the Iranian government "to improve its human rights situation before more Iranians suffer for attempting to exercise their universal rights and freedoms."


Boneheaded labor disputes questioned

I was very irritated by the column "B.C. slips back into Strike-istan" (B.C. Views, July 26). I felt it was very biased and unfair to people who are not in a large income bracket, i.e. most of us.

There is no such thing as a "comfy" picket line. I firmly believe that no person wants to strike. I do believe that most of them are pushed into it by intransigent employers who actually want a strike. They save money during a strike and encourage the public to be outraged.

I cannot understand how you can justify offering wage increases of around three per cent and less for the next four years. Columnist Tom Fletcher has conveniently forgotten about our provincial government representatives giving themselves a raise of 29 per cent in one year, plus their huge pension benefits and expense accounts. I think that alone is a cause for people to expect a little more fairness in wage increases.

I believe that most of us do not call the disputes "bonehead labor disputes" – who are the boneheads? Employers? Or is he referring only to working people as "boneheads"?

I can understand the frustration of people who are inconvenienced by strikes, but it would certainly be refreshing if editorials such as this could look at both sides and what started it all in the first place. That way the public would at least get a true picture of the causes of a current strike.

Barb Brighton, Richmond


LIUNA seeks control of public library

The town has hired a consultant to investigate complaints made by union members against the director of Greenwich (Connecticut) Library and his deputy, officials said. A May 24 letter from human resources director Maureen Kast to library staff that was obtained by Greenwich Time says: "The Town Human Resources Department has been made aware of some unique workplace issues occurring at the Greenwich Library and will be undertaking a special initiative at the Library to assist staff and management with identifying and resolving these issues."

Kast hears town employee grievances, and in this case decided to hire the consultant to do a report on the complaints. She was out of the office this week and could not be reached for comment.

The unions would not say what exactly their complaints were. Lynn Mason, business manager for Laborers' International Union of North America Local 136, said the union has filed many complaints to human resources about library management. "LIUNA has received a number of complaints and filed a number of grievances with the town, over several years," Mason said.

Regarding specific complaints, she said only, "It's a concern over various management practices." Roger Taranto, steward of Teamsters Local 456, said, "It's what we would consider a hostile environment, an environment that basically says, 'You're going to do it my way.'

"We'll see what the report says and what the action of the Board (of Trustees) will be and next steps will be."

Rosalie Mastropaolo, president of the Greenwich Municipal Employees Association, which also represents library workers, could not be reached for comment.

Greenwich Library Director Mario Gonzalez and Deputy Director Barbara Ormerod-Glynn said they couldn't comment on personnel issues.

According to Kast's letter, the town hired Julie Jansen, a Stamford business consultant, to interview library employees one-on-one and "develop positive solutions toward achieving a more harmonious, healthy and productive workplace."

The interviews started after May 30, Kast's letter said. Jansen declined to comment when reached by telephone yesterday.

Gonzalez said Jansen had been hired previously to help develop the library's strategic plan, and that he himself hired her again to help run workshops for library staff members last summer.

Greenwich Library Board of Trustees President Roberta Denning was said to be out of town and could not be reached for comment; neither could Board First Vice President Nancy Better or Second Vice President Jennifer Baldock.

First Selectman Jim Lash said he didn't know how much the town was paying Jansen or how long she was under contract.

"She (Kast) has money in her budget to hire experts for all sorts of things," Lash said.


Day 71: Unions pitch in for strikers

As they enter the third month of their strike at Ohio Valley Aluminum in Shelbyville, Alabama, foundry workers are receiving help from other unions in the region. General Electric workers at Appliance Park in Louisville presented a check for $4,000 to officials from United Steelworkers Local 1693.

"We are doing all we can," IUE/CWA Local 761 boss Tommy Spires said in an interview. A majority of the 84 foundry workers who forge aluminum at the Shelbyville plant voted to join the United Steelworkers last August. Workers have been on strike since June 1, insisting on an all-union shop against the company's wishes to make union membership optional.

USW Local 1693 boss Kevin Baird said striking workers have received a total of $50,000 in contributions, excluding free visits to a doctor and food donations.

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