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In Solidarity – The newsletter for OPSEU Stewards and Activists, Volume 20, Number 2, Spring 2013

In Solidarity Spring 2013

Download In Solidarity Spring 2013

Talk to your young worker

Laurie Sabourin, In Solidarity

Each year in Ontario, over 10,000 workers under the age of 25 file a claim with the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) because they’ve been injured on the job to the extent that they cannot return to work the day after the injury. Almost as many young workers file claims because they’ve suffered an injury that allowed them to keep working, but required first aid treatment.

But how many young workers are not aware of their rights and are bullied by their employer to not report the injury or report back to work immediately without taking the proper time off to heal.

As parents, we are responsible for ensuring our young worker enters the workforce aware of their rights to stay safe.

After my daughter was injured at a well known coffee shop, by a tea pot that burst in mid-air burning her chest area, this became a reality for me. How could this happen? But everyone knows accidents happen, however could this particular incident have been avoided? I found out it could have. Management and staff know these coffee/tea pots have an expiration date. The company continues to use them to save money until they break or crack. This injury could have been very worse. It could have scarred a 16 year old on her face for life. For this reason, as parents we need to make our young children aware of the dangers they may face. 

Talk to your child about their new job and what is expected of them on the job. Let them know they can talk to you about any concerns they might have and talk to their employer about the companies’ health and safety policies and the training provided.

Remind your teen that all workers have the right to:

  • Know about health and safety hazards in their workplaces and how to protect themselves
  • Participate in resolving workplace health and safety concerns
  • Refuse unsafe work

Ask questions about his or her health and safety at work:

  • What do you normally do at work?
  • Do you climb or work at heights?
  • Do you lift and carry heavy objects?
  • Has your employer provided workplace safety orientation training and information?
  • Do you know what protective equipment to wear and how to use it?
  • Do you work with chemicals? Have you been trained in their proper use?
  • Are you tired at work? (Full-time school, homework, social life and work together can cause fatigue, increasing the risk of injury at work and while driving.)
  • Does your supervisor work near you?
  • Does your supervisor provide on-the-job safety feedback?
  • Do you feel you can report safety concerns to your supervisor?
  • Do you know how to report workplace injuries?
  • Do you know about your rights and obligations under Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act?

If my daughter’s employer had their way, she would have been back to work the next day instead of the doctor prescribed time off needed for her second degree burns to heal. By talking to her and explaining what her rights are, as well as, advocating for her by speaking to her employer, she was not bullied and was able to heal properly. 

Start the conversation with your child and encourage him or her to ask questions and seek help if they are uncertain about their health and safety on the job. Don’t let your child become a statistic. Workplace illnesses and injuries can be prevented.  Support them in saying “No!” to unsafe work.


BARGAINING TABLE: Union struggle in the face of Austerity

Jaime McGuire, Local 518

Ontario Public Service Employees Unions’ (OPSEU) Local 518, sisters at Elizabeth Fry Toronto, recently concluded 19 months of collective bargaining. Elizabeth Fry Toronto is a social justice agency that has worked with women in conflict with the law since 1952. It is a chapter of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies (CAEFS). Considered an expert opinion on women in conflict with the law, CAEFS deals with issues of human rights infringements and advocates for prisoner rights in Canada. Individual chapters, such as ours, provide a variety of services including transitional housing, counselling, and programming to women who are, have been, or are at risk of being in conflict with the law.

We are the only social service agency in Toronto with a specific mandate to provide programs and services for and about women in conflict with the law, making us a unique and essential community service. Despite this, like many social service agencies, we continue to be underfunded especially because public and private funds are more likely to go to services geared towards men. As a result, much of our workforce is comprised of casual and contract workers, whose work is precarious. In this context, our struggle was unique. Our small all-female membership stood in solidarity with our casual and contract sisters, as our employer attempted to bust the union by eroding the rights of these workers. Our priorities were to maintain the rights of casual and contract workers, to introduce union representation during harassment and discrimination complaints, and to ensure equal pay for equal work, regardless of job status.

This bargaining round was our second since unionizing in 2009. Conflict stemmed from our employer’s attempt to impose austerity measures on our workplace. Austerity measures are official actions taken by the government to reduce spending, and are characterized as strict, rigid, and punitive. Austerity is also an attitude, a mentality, and a practice. We see the impact of austerity in our communities, particularly in the increase in punitive criminal justice policies. Workers in this sector feel the impact of austerity through heavier caseloads, longer hours, and lower wages. As union work strengthens the voices of workers and promotes the progression of labour rights, even employers who identify as politically progressive may resist strong unions, as unions threaten the distribution of power, compromises control, and require transparency and accountability.

Stalling tactics delayed the process, resulting in 19 months without a new contract, and concluding just hours before a strike deadline. Our employer consistently refused to meet with us face-to-face or provide us with meaningful answers. They attempted to influence the membership through rhetoric and scare tactics, which included circulating e-mails regarding the provincial wage freeze legislation, closing the residence when the membership rejected their first offer, and an increased focus on staff monitoring.

Our employer, including the Board of Directors, has yet to provide a reasonable answer to its employees about why they refused to cooperate with the union. It was simply a bargaining strategy aimed at creating unrest and fear in its employees. We are beginning to speculate there is a strategy amongst the management of Elizabeth Fry Societies across Canada, as our struggles are similar to those of other Elizabeth Fry Societies. In July 2012 workers at Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia went on strike; in June 2012 Elizabeth Fry Society of Hamilton faced a lockout; and our sisters in Ottawa are currently fighting an uphill battle to negotiate their first collective agreement.

This bargaining round marked a precedent at Elizabeth Fry Toronto. Our employer’s stall tactics and lack of overall cooperation ignited the passion within a stagnant membership. Motivated by our employer’s unwillingness to negotiate in good faith and engage in a meaningful process, we stood strong and unwavering in our demand for a fair and equitable workplace. Our membership ratified an agreement that included: union representation during discrimination and harassment complaints, enshrinement of casual and contract rights, and a one per cent wage increase for each of the remaining four years of the contract. We also won permanent status for any contract worker who has worked for a year (and is not filling a leave of absence), making them eligible to receive benefits. Additionally, we achieved a very small wage increase for residential counsellors who operate, supervise, and secure a residence that provides transitional housing for women being released from both the provincial and federal correctional systems. Their job is often viewed as entry level and is undervalued as a result. Lastly, we won a small signing bonus and a monetary payout to each employee, which the bargaining team insisted be equalized throughout the membership. Given the climate for collective bargaining, these were huge achievements for our union.

Going into the bargaining process our expectations were high. Permanent members were willing to forgo demands that would only benefit themselves in order to achieve gains for more vulnerable members. These demands included benefits and sick leave for contract staff, equal pay for both residential and outreach counsellors, and a meaningful wage increase (the only increase since unionization was a pay equity adjustment in 2009). Our members quickly realized that this round of bargaining could not be just about gaining such benefits for our precarious workers. Our employer was in fact attempting to remove these workers entirely from the collective agreement. Since casual and contract workers make up 60 per cent of our workforce, removing them from the collective agreement would mean a weakening of our union membership. This was an attempt to bust our union through “divide and conquer,” and would result in further marginalizing our most vulnerable workers. The union not only had to fight to keep these workers’ rights protected, but also to maintain their status as unionized members.

How could a “feminist”, women-centered, social justice agency such as Elizabeth Fry Toronto be so willing to oppress its workers? Why would such an agency not share values of representation, reduction in precarious work, and equal pay for equal work? In this difficult political climate, even agencies that claim to foster themselves on concepts of social justice, anti-oppression, advocacy, and equality, prove to be resisting the very institutions that have historically protected our work. For a predominately female sector such as social work, the need for unions is even more present, as we are the very workers who are marginalized as a result of the societal undervaluation of our work. There is an expectation that the management of such agencies will have their workers’ rights in mind. Unfortunately this is not the case, as the agencies are forced to play in a political arena that is more about money than people.

Unions play a much larger role than fighting for economic gains. They lessen the power imbalance between management and labour, and create a space for workers to organize, mobilize, and fight in solidarity. In a climate of austerity and anti-union employers, unions have to be stronger than ever. Increasingly the government is interfering with workers’ rights to unionize and collectively bargain, and instituting austerity measures such as wage freezes and back-to-work legislations. For example, Ontario elementary and secondary school teachers are currently on a work-to-rule campaign in response to Liberal legislation that prevents collective bargaining. Workers need to stand in solidarity, understand the value of being unionized, and keep their membership strong during these times of austerity, as the state of unions in Canada is currently under attack and workers must fight to claim their space back. 

Jaime McGuire, Bargaining Team member at Elizabeth Fry Toronto, has been a counsellor there for three years, and works in the Healing from Abuse Program. She is a strong union activist and currently holds the positions of Unit Steward, Bargaining Chair, and Treasurer for OPSEU Local 518.

***This was originally published in, “Action Speaks Louder” a bi-annual newsletter of the Ontario Public Interest Research Group at the University of Toronto.


A question of equity 

Glen Archer, In Solidarity

Over the past several years I have had the opportunity on multiple occasions to discuss equity issues and how they are interpreted by members.

The reason I am bringing this up now is that with the recent events surrounding the surprise resignation of Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, and his proroguing of parliament, may be the impetus for an upcoming election. Meanwhile, the provincial Liberals have elected Kathleen Wynne as Leader and Premier. The opposition parties are now left weighing their options and sizing up their chances to win the next provincial election. Should an election be forced it would as always lead to the inevitable avalanche of attack ads, neighbourhood poster blitzes and the constant “water cooler” debates.

 What ties this into the equity issue, you may ask?

Well a few years back, in May 2011 to be exact, I was at an OPSEU course held near Orillia, Ontario.

The timing of this course coincided with the last federal election, and seeing as most of us were pretty much stuck at the facility where the course was held, we all sat in a hospitality suite watching the returns being broadcast throughout the evening. One thing that stuck out in my mind was the viciousness being shown by some of my brothers and sisters to the notion that people would vote for any party other than the New Democratic Party (NDP). There was several times that the word “redneck” was thrown out in reference to Stephen Harper and his Conservative supporters. Anyone voting for the Michael Ignatieff Liberals was referred to as being “brain dead” or “old boys’ network”! Throughout the evening the verbal sniping continued until I blurted out “I voted for Harper!” After the ensuing uncomfortable silence, I then proceeded to point out that according to our statement of respect I was to be accorded the right of my personal political affiliation without suffering any harassing and discriminatory action.

Right away I was offered the most sincere apologies. At this point I came clean with my fellow election watchers. I told them that I had, in fact, already voted for the NDP in an advance poll, that both my wife and I are registered supporters of the NDP and we were, as a matter of fact, on Jack Layton’s mailing list!

I took advantage of this opportunity to initiate debate on an issue I feel is every bit as important as any other equity issue: the right to be free to choose your own political affiliation. I pointed out that if people treated their OPSEU brothers and sisters who were part of the other equity groups with the same disdain as we treat people of different political ideologies there would be hell to pay!

At the end of that particular night we all rejoiced at the fact that Jack Layton became the leader of the official opposition and we parted as amicably as we met.

Now and then I like to bring this story up to emphasize the diversity of our union. Sometimes I like to point out that statistically there may be several Liberal and Conservative supporters at every OPSEU event. Maybe a few Green supporters too.

The point is that while I might not support an individual’s political choice, I will fight whole-heartedly for their right to express themselves politically. When it comes to equity we should all practice what we preach.



Social change through social media 

Kim McDowell, Chair, Human Rights Committee

It’s amazing how fast a year passes in the planning phase in preparation for the 2012 Human Rights Conference. The Human Rights Committee, in conjunction with the caucuses and Young Workers, were at the table talking about themes and our hopes for an exciting conference.

We were determined to advance Human Rights knowledge for people’s rights, not only in our union but in the community, province and nationally as well. Identifying issues and having education with resolutions for all was a goal we set. The resonating question was, “How do we get information to the members and public the fastest way we can?”

Well, looking around at our youth today the answer was relatively easy: social media. Talk about an eruption of excitement in the room! Members burst forth with ideas, sharing experiences and setting goals for a weekend full of speakers, learning and commitments to advance equity and human rights. We should integrate human rights advocacy with social media strategies, along with practical advocacy skills for using a range of social media for human rights and equity work. We anticipated members would have a variety of knowledge in some areas, and we hoped to assist members to develop knowledge, tools and strategies to move equity work forward through social media campaigning, organizing, and networking. Lastly, our hope for our members was to build commitment and capacity for human rights advocacy in the workplace, local and community.

At the conference, panel speakers from many walks of life, with vast knowledge in life experiences through their jobs, provoked the emotions of the participating members and opened our conscious minds. Members were challenged to disseminate equity and human rights news through media technologies, specifically social networking. I would welcome members to check out the list of speakers we had representing labour, economic change, political activism, social media, gaming, and journalism: Derek Blackadder (@dblackadder), CUPE Rep and senior correspondent with LabourStart; Philippe Duhamel (@PhilippeDuhamel), eco-activist/nonviolent actionist and educator for social change; Tessa Finlev (@futressa), Research Manager at the Institute for the Future; Min Reyes (@Min_Reyes), Canada’s top political tweeter; and Sonia Verma (@soniaverma), a foreign affairs journalist for the Globe and Mail.

On Saturday night, our members were provided Jazz entertainment by Melissa Lauren, an accomplished singer/songwriter who is making her mark on the Canadian music scene.

In our conference’s educational component, members brought forth their own interpretations for advancing issues in social media. Tears of joy flowed from my eyes and I was left speechless and overwhelmed by the interest and commitment our members brought forth in their presentations for advancing group equity and human rights. Our goal was achieved beyond our dreams; members had found a tool to utilize in their daily lives as activists for humanity.

Our closing ceremony was a beautiful display of singing and dancing from members of the Native Canadian Center of Toronto (NCCT). This group of wonderful brothers and sisters from our First Nations people performed songs and dance giving thanks and celebrating life.

In closing, members of our equity groups gave of themselves, vested in a vision that has opened doors to a new way of thinking. Robert Hamsey and I both agree that we have all been truly blessed. Our equity committees and caucuses thank all the members who stepped forward to address the challenge of advancing equity and human rights.    



Winning at all costs

Lisa Bicum, In Solidarity

I’ve taught in a community college for many years, and with my tenure have come seats on several committees. 

Also, I am often asked to be on committees for community groups: kids’ teams, church, daycares, school, etc. Most committees function as they should: people work together and come up with solutions, plans of actions, policies, etc.

On these committees, I’ve worked with all types of people. I’ve worked with the visionary, the pragmatist, the analyst, the procrastinator, and the one with little attention span. I seem to be able to work with all types but one: the person who has to win at all costs. Recently I’ve worked on a committee with such a person, and I left completely enraged at what a weenie the person could be. I was steamed. I spent my entire drive home planning what to do if I were to run into this personality type again.

I’ve had some time to reflect, and I’ve done a bit of reading.  I think I’ve come up with a few tips. Identifying this behaviour and being prepared to deal with it are the first steps so that we are not feeling cut short or ambushed in a meeting.

A book came my way recently, and it’s truly a good read. Robert I. Sutton, author of The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t provides this gem:

“….a huge body of research—hundreds of studies—shows that when people are put in positions of power they start talking more, taking what they want for themselves, ignoring what other people say or want, ignoring how less powerful people react to their behaviour, acting more rudely, and generally treating any situation or person as a means for satisfying their own needs—and that being put in positions of power blinds them to the fact that they are acting like jerks.”

To me, this was earth-shatteringly freakin’ brilliant. I’ve certainly run into these people, and each time I wonder who, exactly, has bestowed upon these individuals this great power.

I’ve also witnessed how this individual seems to make up their own rules as they go. If this person doesn’t like a rule, he or she doesn’t have to apply it. They will stoop low enough to make insults on a personal level. I’ve heard my share of slams at teachers, students, blondes, females, single parents, Volkswagen drivers—anyone.

What is most frustrating about working with someone who must win is exactly that: he or she must, at all cost, win. That means logic often takes a back seat. These arguers grasp at straws and stray from the point at hand. These people are truly decent in other aspects of the workplace, so they often catch us off guard with their erratic behaviour.

Solutions to dealing with this behaviour crop up in all sorts of business manuals. In Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, number four describes this: think win-win. People should strive to have all parties benefit. This may be easier said than done if dealing with someone who is being, shall we say, “obtuse.”

So you’re wondering, what do I do when I run into someone like this?

 My advice, and it’s only advice, is not to be afraid to walk away if things get heated. Don’t cave to a bully, and make sure to have another option—reconvene a meeting if you must.  OPSEU has a very clear harassment policy which outlines steps to follow if you or someone around you is being harassed or discriminated against. OPSEU even provides a policy to use in your workplace if one doesn’t already exist. Actually, the OPSEU website has several documents to aid in maintaining a harassment-free and bully-free workplace.

You don’t want to get caught up in the argument because common sense can take a back seat when their ultimate goal is to win; insulting comments and arguments can become easy fodder. Keep your cool, and don’t stoop to the same manipulative games the difficult person is using.

In the end, we can’t change the way others act, but we can control how we react. Usually my reaction is “run!” However, more and more I’m able to put these ideas to work for me.  Dealing with difficult personality types may be exactly that—difficult; however, it’s all part of life.   


Employees beware: The perils of posting on Facebook

Priya Sarin/ Rabble.ca

The dramatic growth of social media use in Canada on such sites as Facebook has raised novel legal issues for employers and employees. One such issue is whether or not an employee’s off-duty conduct online (i.e. posting personal status updates, photos or comments on Facebook at home) can get that employee fired. In short, the answer is yes.

Many Canadians still erroneously believe that what they post on their personal Facebook page is private. They feel little hesitation in coming home after a difficult day at work and griping publicly about their company, boss, coworkers or quality of work. While it is important to protect freedom of expression and healthy discourse on labour relations issues, posting this type of content online may have serious consequences.

First, Facebook posts and comments can be produced in a legal proceeding where they might be relevant to the allegations made, even if that information is contained in a limited access area of an individual’s Facebook profile (see Leduc v. Roman, at para 31). Moreover, regardless of whether you intend your posts to be relatively private, courts and arbitrators have tended to conclude that posts on social media sites are easily disseminated and may be considered public if viewed by your “friends.”

Second, the current trend in Canada appears to be to uphold discipline and/or dismissals of employees for making inappropriate Facebook posts, namely, any posts which demonstrate insubordination, harassment, breach of any known workplace policy (e.g. on confidentiality, absenteeism, respect for human dignity, etc.), or which could cause harm to the reputation of the employer. These decisions are a wakeup call to exercise extreme caution in what you post online, even if only to your “friends” on Facebook. This is particularly so where your Facebook friends include past and present co-workers, or members of the public who could be customers or associates of your employer. It is difficult to predict who will read your comments, or in whose hands they will end up.

This year, arbitrators in both Ontario and Alberta had occasion to consider the circumstances in which they would uphold discipline imposed as a result of offensive Facebook posts made by employees.

In Bell Technical Solutions v. Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, Arbitrator Chauvin upheld the suspension of one technician who had made several insulting remarks about his manager on Facebook and upheld the dismissal of another technician who regularly complained about his job and made disparaging comments about both his manager and the company on his Facebook page. A third employee’s discharge was substituted with a one-year suspension without pay for the frequent insulting comments he made about his manager. His dismissal was not upheld because he did not disparage the company and had apparently been provoked by his manager. The comments made by the three employees were viewable by all of their Facebook friends, which specifically included other Bell Technical Solutions technicians. Notably, the manager was not identified by name in the posts but referred to as “gorilla,” which was understood by the employees to refer to their manager.

In coming to his conclusions, Arbitrator Chauvin noted at paragraph 112 of his decision that “the nature and frequency of the comments must be carefully considered to determine how insolent, insulting, insubordinate and/or damaging they were to the individual(s) or the company.” The suspended employee had only made a handful of comments about his manager, removed them once spoken to and ultimately expressed genuine remorse. The dismissed employee, on the other hand, carried on for 16 months making derogatory comments about both his manager and employer without any remorse, even mocking the employer’s requests to cease making these types of comments.

Similarly, in the Canada Post Corp. decision released this past spring (Canada Post Corp. v. Canadian Union of Postal Workers [2012] C.L.A.D. No. 85), Arbitrator Ponak upheld the discharge of a postal clerk with a lengthy 31 years of service because the employee had made a number of vulgar, insulting and threatening comments with respect to her supervisors (e.g. “Die B—- Die” and “I’m texting in sick, my idiot supervisor is 24”). These comments were brought to management’s attention by a co-worker and resulted in the targeted managers taking stress leave from their jobs on seeing the comments. In this case, the employee had not intended her comments to be public, but the arbitrator found she was still responsible for the consequences of her actions.

Notwithstanding Arbitrator Chauvin’s comment in Bell Technical Solutions, highlighting the frequency of inappropriate Facebook comments as a factor to consider, it is important to note that one Facebook post alone could be considered so offensive as to render the employment relationship untenable. This is particularly so if the employee creates a nexus between his or her comments and the employer, and the comments are considered to be public.

For example, in Wasaya Airways LP (Wasaya Airways LP v. Air Line Pilots Assn., International (Wyndels Grievance) (2010), 195 L.A.C. (4th) 1), a pilot with three-and-a-half years’ of service posted a comment on his Facebook page that was disrespectful to First Nations people. Although he did not identify his employer directly, the post was considered to be so offensive that it undermined the employment relationship. The pilot’s post had the potential to harm Wasaya Airways’ reputation and did poison the pilot’s relationship with management. Indeed, Wasaya Airways is owned by several First Nations and predominantly provides services to First Nations communities. Because of mitigating factors, the pilot was forced to resign instead of being outright dismissed.

Last week, Justin Hutchings of London, Ontario, learned the hard way about the consequences of making an inappropriate Facebook post. Mr. Hutchings posted the offensive comment “Thank God this B—- is Dead” on teen bullying victim Amanda Todd’s memorial page, which was open to the public. Because Mr. Hutchings had identified his employer, Big & Tall Menswear, on his own profile, the employer received a direct complaint about the offensive post. Mr. Hutchings was fired for conduct that was considered contrary to the company’s policy of treating all individuals honourably and, arguably, for conduct that would bring the employer into disrepute. Regardless of whether or not Mr. Hutchings’ dismissal was warranted, let this serve as a reminder that Facebook posts are considered to be very much in the public domain and unsavoury commentary by you that reflects poorly on your employer or colleagues could easily result in negative repercussions for you in the workplace. 

***Iler Campbell LLP is a law firm serving co-ops, not-for-profits, charities, and socially-minded small business and individuals in Ontario.


Part 2 of a four-part series

“Mega-Mart” and your local economy

Virginia Ridley, In Solidarity

So a new “Mega-Mart” has announced it is opening in town. Some local politicians are talking about the economic boom that is sure to happen as well as job creation for the community. The problem is the type of jobs being created in the community.

In Part 1 of this series, I looked at the possible positive spinoffs from having a big box store in your neighbourhood and told you I would dig a little deeper to find out what really happens to a community when a “Mega-Mart” springs up. In Part 2 I have uncovered where the money goes and who the big winners are when a “Mega-Mart” comes to town.

Quite often, the mandate of a “Mega-Mart” is profit for their shareholders. Any profit seen from the store rarely stays within the community that helped create it. This means the money generated within the local economy leaves the local community. Certainly, there are some economic advantages to the community; however the economic advantages are minimal at best, and, more often than not, disadvantage the community.

To examine this issue, let us look at the example of a new “Mega-Mart”.

A mid-size Ontario town with several small family owned businesses receives news of a new “Mega-Mart” interested in opening up in their neighbourhood. While the community members do their best to sway politicians and local zoning, the “Mega-Mart” prevails. Many of the small businesses in the area realize they won’t be able to compete with the “Mega-Mart” model, and decide that it is time to close their own shops. These businesses employ anywhere from two to 30 people from the community. The employees are workers who have devoted many years to the local employer, including the odd student who is working part-time after school to save for college or the woman who decided to re-enter the workforce after staying home to raise her children. These employees have a wealth of experience, and have obtained fair wages from the local business. When the local businesses do well, some owners award their staff bonuses, and/or sharing in their profits, which in turn stays within the local economy. They receive a discount on the merchandise from the shops where they work. The expertise in many of these small shops is abundant, and the service is phenomenal. Upon the closure of these small independent shops these people are out of work. With limited options for employment in their community, they apply to the Mega-Mart.

After being interviewed by the Mega-Mart team, prior to the grand opening, they are offered a job. 15-25 hours a week at minimum wage, starting four months later. There are no benefits, no retirement savings program and no paid sick days. In fact, should an employee take anything above the normal sick time, they will be dismissed. These are jobs, but they are not good jobs.

Training provided to the employees is minimal. New hires stand in a meeting room while a corporately-prepared slide show races through WHMIS and health and safety protocols, but more importantly the company’s propaganda. The corporate manager presenting the slide show has only marginal expertise in these areas. When questions are asked, is able to give great responses, diverting questions away from Health and Safety, and focusing on the Corporate propaganda. After all, if we all work together with a smile on our face and ask “Can I help you find something today?” there is no real need to know about health and safety. With a focus on pushing product out the door, health and safety is often only a minor concern.

Recently, I was in the emergency room with my husband when an injured young man who works at a local big box store came in. This young man told me he had worked in their warehouse for several years until he was hurt in a forklift accident. The driver of the forklift had not seen him and clipped him with the forks when making a turn. He was off work for several months with a back injury. After returning to work, he was transferred to a store location which was deemed safer by the company. He was given no new training, and put to work stocking shelves. This particular morning, he was retrieving stock from the back room when some heavy supplies fell onto his shoulder. He heard a pop and was fearful that he had dislocated his left shoulder. He had driven himself to the emergency room, in a standard transmission car. When asked why his supervisor or another staff hadn’t driven him, as he was clearly in pain, he replied that his supervisor did not have a licence. He later learned the items which fell injuring his shoulder were supposed to be secured as they are top heavy and known to fall over. The staff were not properly trained in health and safely. This is a specific example of how big box stores put profits before employees.

Job security is at risk in these “Mega-Marts”. Just because you have a job today, don’t expect you will have it for years to come. By law, employers in Ontario do not have to give a rationale for termination. It is often much less expensive to hire a new employee than to pay a higher premium for an experienced long-term worker, even if the employer pays out termination pay according to the Employment Standards Act. One can only imagine situations where this happens.

Employees of the “Mega-Marts” have reduced spending power. Paying an employee only minimum or near-minimum wage for part-time hours is not enough to sustain even a basic quality of life. Perhaps those employees earn equal to or less than they would receive from social assistance programs like Ontario Works. Ontario Works at least provides drug benefits for families and dental and vision benefits for children.

With the communities spending power reduced, the members of the community have no choice but to shop at the “Mega-Mart.” The community, who at one time bought locally and was self-sustaining, is now spending their money in “Mega-Mart,” but the money is now leaving their community.  Where is the economic growth for the community? If, as a whole, their money is leaving, then the economy of the community continues to shrink. Those few independent businesses that manage to stay afloat through the opening of the “Mega-Mart” are continuously at risk of closure. They simply cannot compete with the ongoing price war. “Mega-Marts” are able to purchase in large quantities to offer product at reduced costs. With families struggling, they go where the products are cheapest.

“Mega-Marts” are also notoriously anti-union. After all, unions bargain fair wages, safe work places, and adhere to strict labour laws. Unions threaten the company’s bottom line. From the “Mega-Mart’s” point of view, their shareholders would protest low profit margins. Shareholders are their priority.

Some small communities have been able to ward off the “Mega-Marts,” but for how long? There is a short-sightedness within our society when the immediate “savings” and “convenience” are valued so much that we put our long-term financial health, good employment, and fair wages at risk.

Part 3 will look at the availability of options to the people within their community.  


Strengthening locals

Virginia Ridley, In Solidarity

The biggest impediment I hear about in regards to a strike is funds. Although members want to take a stand during negotiations, many struggle to pay bills between contracts, let alone during a strike. Some members have tackled this issue within their own locals. 

Fanshawe College, Local 110, is one of the locals who have set up their own Contingency Fund. This fund is used in case of strike, legal expenses and/or member hardship. Usage is specified in their local bylaws.

I had the opportunity to speak to local President Darryl Bedford to ask about the fund. Bedford reports the local has deducted extra dues since the 1970s. The local dues were set by referendum at 0.3 per cent and haven’t changed over the years.

So how does it work? The employer collects the extra local dues from members and sends a cheque to the local each month. The dues are invested in secure investments such as GICs. To ensure the money is insured by the Canadian Deposit Insurance Corporation, no more than $100,000 is held at anyone financial institution.

Bedford reports that during the CAAT strike of 2006, the local strike pay to members was $400 on top of what members received from OPSEU. Further, the local was able to cover the employer’s portion of pension contributions for anyone who retired within five years of the strike. This ensured that the strike had no impact on members “best five years” calculations.

When asked if he had any advice for other locals looking at starting a contingency fund within their local, Bedford advised, “Start early, the sooner the better; document everything in local bylaws and motions at general membership meetings; and be transparent to your members.”

Can you imagine walking into negotiations with your employer knowing that you have over a million dollars in a contingency fund? Perhaps it’s time to start planning, well in advance within your local. The better planning you do today, the stronger your local is at the bargaining table.


Inspiring a community…one bag of rice at a time

Dora Robinson, Chair, Provincial Women’s Committee

On the shores of the Albany River, one of the largest and most pristine rivers in Ontario, is the community of Fort Albany First Nation. Accessible only by air, water and winter road, the women of this remote community of about one thousand became the focus of the OPSEU Provincial Women’s Committee’s desire last year to reach out to women in a very practical way. With considerable anticipation, a solidarity fundraiser took shape in the spring of 2012 that to date has raised $3,400 to be used for the women of Fort Albany.

OPSEU members and staff have been unfailingly generous in supporting our sales of Manomin Rice, produced by another remote northern First Nation, the Wabigoon Lake Ojibway. This community has a fantastic story of economic and cultural renewal of their own to tell. They produce, process and package the rice that the PWC has been selling since last year. We are proud to be able to support the economy of Wabigoon Lake while contributing to the lives of women in Fort Albany.

The community of Fort Albany held its first women’s retreat on the land last summer, a summer camp-out that was so successful a spring retreat is planned for this year. It will include instruction in traditional cooking, hunting and survival along with games, spiritual teaching and hand drumming. The women are organizing monthly gatherings to learn from one another, along with skills that need sharing like making mittens and moccasins and storytelling.  They have also begun to plant modest vegetable gardens in the good weather months producing potatoes and carrots.

The women of Fort Albany have also requested a place of their own to come together. We are in the early stages of talking about the possibility of “Project Yurt.” This would be a joint project between a number of parties, including the PWC and the community of Fort Albany. The parties would be committed to practical and financial support, including the delivery and set up of a yurt that OPSEU would donate. It is exciting to consider that we would be participating in such an act of friendship and solidarity with these sisters in spirit, celebrating the art of the possible and making good things happen. This is what solidarity does…it builds partnerships and, in very real terms, makes us put our money where our mouths are.  

The PWC will be at OPSEU events with our 455 gram bags of beautifully packaged Manomin wild rice. Please continue to support our efforts to support the women of this community. You can also contact OPSEU’s Equity Unit to purchase your rice. We are grateful to the friends, members and staff of OPSEU for their support thus far and hope we can count on your unwavering support going forward as we see this project through to completion.  The women of Fort Albany are thrilled and thankful that we have connected with them, and are excited that we have been able to provide funding that gives women an opportunity to heal and grow, be together, laugh together, drum and sing together, and share and learn from one another. 

Here’s a great recipe from an OPSEU sister that should make you positively salivate; but you can’t make it without a bag of our Manomin Rice!

Wild Rice Soup

½ cup butter

1 finely chopped onion

1 cup chopped celery

1/2 cup uncooked rice (cook according to recipe)

3 tablespoons flour

Salt and pepper

1 can chicken broth

2 cups milk

2 cups cooked diced chicken (or turkey!)

Melt butter in large pot over medium heat. Add onion and celery, cook for 5-10 minutes. Stir in flour and salt and pepper to taste. Add broth and milk and stir until soup thickens. Add rice and chicken and heat through.

Recipe courtesy of Mary Cory, EBM Region 7


WSIB Strategic Plan: A plan for the employer…NOT the worker 

Greg Snider, Local 740

The Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) recently released a work plan for the coming years that is filled with employer lingo and employer goals. Missing is any concern or understanding of the issues concerning workers, who are struggling with injuries they suffered in the workplace.

The report starts out well enough, mentioning the “Historical Compromise.” In 1913 workers gave up the right to sue employers for injuries and losses due to workplace injuries in return for compensation paid for by employers and managed out of an independent compensation system.

However, the “Introductions” final paragraph is both confusing and disheartening. It states that the Strategic Plan is being done, “following an in-depth study of the current environment and drivers of the unfunded liability.” This is very confusing because the Arthurs Report (an independent report on unfunded liability, paid for by WSIB) did not come out until over a month after this was released. It is disheartening to me because I have spent many of the past years working with Injured Workers in Thunder Bay and their concerns are not the unfunded liability; they have more urgent concerns—like their lives right here and right now.

The report then discusses the Demographic and Labour Market Outlook, which is very revealing about where WSIB is coming from. It talks about the workforce getting older which has resulted in more claims being filed. It talks about women at risk of staying on benefits longer as more take on men’s jobs. It talks about immigrant workers being on benefits longer then non-immigrant workers. It goes on to talk about other effects on WSIB such as the unemployment rate, non-full time workers and continual shifts in the jobs not covered under the Act. This section makes numerous references to people being at “risk” of staying on longer but makes no reference to those who feel they are being pushed back to work too early or those being encouraged not to report an accident at all. This is very reflective of the one-sidedness that was apparent throughout the report.

The report also discusses the financial challenges facing WSIB, and the prime reason for this report is the Unfunded Liability (UFL). It talks about the UFL as though these don’t exist anywhere but WSIB or as though successful businesses don’t have them. The fact is, it is normal practice for businesses, organizations, and even individuals to carry some degree of unfunded liability. Do you have enough money today to sustain costs you will incur in the future (your own unfunded liability)? Chances are you don’t—rather you will earn money in the future that will help with those costs as they arise. The same with WSIB. The UFL is an issue only if the WSIB had to close its doors and pay everyone out today; the reality is that the WSIB will continue to exist and collect premiums that will be used to pay benefits now and in the future. The UFL is being touted as an emergency when the real emergency should be the shoddy treatment injured workers are getting.

The report makes a very strange reference to employers paying for the interest caused by the UFL even though employers’ premiums have not been increased since Mike Harris cut those same premiums in the 1990s. WSIB’s analysis shows the UFL was caused by workers’ claims and health care costs, yet the Arthurs Report doesn’t draw the same conclusions. Perhaps this explains why this a plan had to be released before Arthurs was able to report his findings.

Next up is a review of the Auditor’s Report. WSIB refers to its work plan as an answer to concerns raised by the Auditor General. However, as we read further in the report it becomes clear that it missed two points it mentions from the Auditor’s Report. The Auditor’s report talks about the WSIB having to balance the needs of the injured worker with those of its fiscal responsibility to employers. It also talks about the four levers that WSIB must deal with, which includes premium rates, a suggestion the Board later dismisses.

The Arthurs Report into the UFL, for which this report was drafted, finally gets some mention on page 8 where it finishes by advising that the information will further amend their work plan. It seems clear to me the work plan was done in advance of Arthurs Report so the wants of the WSIB directors (i.e. the Exit Bonus for meeting financial goals) would be the driving force behind this plan and not the independent and expert work of Mr. Arthurs.

And finally we get to their work plan and we read the vision and it says, “While reaffirming its commitment to the Meredith Principles and to providing fair compensation…” Okay let’s stop reading now. Oh, but we can’t.

Then of course comes their Value Proposition and we really should have stopped reading, because it says, “The WSIB is focused on making it easier for Employers to get back to business while supporting workers…” What the #&@%? Why did the introduction refer to WSIB as an Independent Trust Organization? Everyone wants to see people employed and that means business getting back to production in a safe way, but what does that have to do with an organization that collects money from one group and provides compensation to another? “The WSIB is focused on managing costs to employers while meeting its obligations to workers.” That would fit into their mandate, but getting businesses up and going after a workplace accident certainly doesn’t. Perhaps they meant “making it easier for workers to get back to work.” 

The Value Proposition section goes on to say that applying for WSIB will be easier. Sounds great, but their new forms are written in the finest of print with even more questions.

When we read the section on values it talks about making tough decisions, but not the right decisions. Apparently they already know the decisions they are going to make.

The report then moves in to its five pillars starting with “Sufficient Funding” where it makes it clear that the “financial problems” of WSIB will not be resolved by repealing the Harris fifty per cent rate cut.

Later in the report it advises that a key factor in maintaining the current rates is “the desire not to unduly burden Ontario’s employers.” We wouldn’t want them unduly burdened with a lawsuit because a worker was injured due to their careless action either, would we?

The report makes it clear that WSIB would not increase rates to employers to make up the unfunded liability costs. It states, “A key factor in the decision to keep premiums stable is to not unduly burden employers.” In the same way a lawsuit would?

The report talks about “Right Sizing the Cost”. They will achieve this by “Preventing or mitigating the consequences of high impact claims and reducing the extent and incident of permanent impairment caused by all injuries.” This is double talk for: We are going to reduce what we pay out for injuries by making the effects of injury fit our financial goals, when in fact the effects of the injuries suffered by the employee should be driving the costs of compensation.

The new WSIB will be a modern organization with over 95 per cent of its claims being dealt with through auto adjudication but with fewer opportunities to appeal. They talk about being easier to access (24/7 service, internet access, etc.) but they don’t talk about being more accessible (TTY, large-print forms, accessible website) which would be very helpful to a community that is largely disabled. In fact, the WSIB’s plans for a call reduction strategy and a self-service format which will likely result in a program that is harder for people with disabilities to use.

The employer can rejoice in the knowledge that despite a couple of words to the contrary the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board has finally given up on all but giving lip service to being a provider of compensation. Forgotten is the great compromise where the employee gave up the right to sue the employers who played a role in their injury and, more importantly, the extensive cost that would have been rewarded. When faced with a financial crisis, WSIB gave up any pretence of being a neutral administrator of a Compensation Fund when they looked to only one side—the workers—to fix the problem.


Equity vs. Equality: Is there a difference?

Virginia Ridley, In Solidarity

Isn’t Equity and Equality the same thing? I really struggled for many years trying to sort out the difference. I struggled in silence as I was too embarrassed to admit my lack of understanding around the terminology. Finally, I figured it out. It was after hearing a teacher explain the difference between equity and equality to her students that I really understood. Up to that moment, if anyone had asked, I really couldn’t define the distinction between Equity and Equality.

In a grade five classroom, there was a young man who struggled in most subjects. He was allowed extra time to complete his math tests and during spelling tests, an educational assistant would transcribe his answers. The other children in the class complained that it this wasn’t fair. They stated that everyone should get the identical amount of time to do the same work, with no additional supports. The students demanded that the teacher treat everyone equally.

A few days later, that same teacher came into the room, and asked all the children to remove their shoes. She then redistributed the shoes at random ensuring each child got two. The children were told to put on the new shoes. Immediately the children complained the shoes were either both lefts or rights, too big, too small or didn’t match.

The teacher responded by saying, “What’s wrong? You all have two shoes. I did everything fairly.”

The children further protested. “They aren’t the right shoes!”

The teacher responded by telling the children she had treated them all EQUALLY. After all they all had two shoes; furthermore, if she regarded differences in sizes, wouldn’t the children with bigger feet actually be entitled to have more shoes because of the bigger sizes?

The teacher asked the class, “So, you want the best shoes for you individually? Not just any shoe?”

The children agreed that they wanted the right shoes for them.

That is the difference between Equity and Equality.

Equality means everyone gets exactly the same, without regard for individual differences.

Equity means that everyone gets the same quality of outcome: a “shoe” that fits their needs.


Beware the spin doctor

Glen Archer, In Solidarity

A few weeks back my daughter brought an interesting subject to the family supper table: statistics. She was perplexed by a question raised by her math teacher that asked, “What's the difference between ‘not popular’ and ‘least popular’?”

The ensuing debate was both entertaining and enlightening.

For my part, I began by painting the following mental picture: You and nine friends visit the local ice cream parlour on some hot, sunny day to buy yourselves an ice cream cone. Between the 10 of you, three choose vanilla flavoured ice cream, two choose chocolate and the remaining five choose an alternative individual flavour.

Here's where the spin doctors makes their money:

They could make a case for vanilla stating that in a study of ice cream aficionados, vanilla was chosen more times than any other flavour. Conversely, they may make a case that in the same study ONLY a mere 30 per cent of respondents chose vanilla. If you were trying to sell chocolate you'd point out that it was chosen 2 to 1 in nearly half of respondents. Any of the other flavours could have qualified as being third choice amongst respondents, even though they were tied with four other flavours and only one person in ten chose it.

At the end of our dinner conversation I think my daughter had a different view on statistics and it awakened a new awareness in my own views on number crunching.

If you are smart enough you can get the numbers to say anything.

All I can say is that sometimes we need to look past the numbers and recognize the spin doctoring.

Sometimes the facts are not fact at all.

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