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Wild, wild cats

in Featured/To Each Their Own by

News coverage has been dominated by the wildcat strike out in Long Harbour this past week. As CBC reports, about 100 crane operators, supported by other workers and unions, sparked a widespread work stoppage which began last Thursday, with up to a thousand workers standing in solidarity with the strikers and refusing to go to work. Vale – the company in charge – obtained a court injunction declaring the strike illegal, yet hundreds of workers remained on strike despite the threat of prosecution.

The strike ended Monday evening with an announcement from the Resource Development Trades Council that union leaders and Vale would continue talks Tuesday morning. But before another dispute between workers and a large company fades from the media spotlight, what can we take away from the incident?

Initial concerns cited by the workers included low wages and concern that foreign workers might be brought in (instead of raising wages to attract and keep more Newfoundland workers employed). Subsequent coverage has revealed a range of additional concerns (like travel allowances), which all focus on one primary issue: workers want to be able to work in this province and maintain a similar quality of life to what they would have if they were working for companies in other provinces.

VOCM’s unique reportage provided a good snapshot of some of these concerns:

A crane operator who has worked in Alberta for the past 15 years says he makes about two-and-a-half times the money in Alberta as he would in Newfoundland…Crane workers say there isn’t a labour shortage in this province, there’s a wage shortage. Many tell VOCM News they took a $15-$20 pay cut from worksites out west to come home and work. It’s the idea of being in their home province and working, that striking workers say Vale and other sub companies on site are holding against them, expecting them to take lower wages. One worker, Howard, says a house in St. John’s costs $425,000, while in Fort McMurray it’s $450,000, and he asks, what’s the difference? Aside from the wage issue, workers say there is low morale at the site. Another example: Fred White says companies out west will make it free for the worker to fly between here and Alberta, while Vale recently proposed charging workers $450 to get a bus from St. John’s and Clarenville to the work site about 70 minutes away. The only female crane operator on site is Sheri Smith; she and her co-workers say their contract has changed, and benefits like travel and LOA have been clawed back.

I’ve spoken to a lot of construction workers over the past year, and one thing I’ve learned is what a difficult lifestyle the trades can be. In addition to the often back-breaking and dangerous nature of the work, large companies in this province often hire short-term contracts only, leaving workers wondering how long they’ll be employed.

The hourly wage ain’t always bad. But the uncertainty and precariousness of the lifestyle is not fit, particularly not for those trying to make a life in our struggling rural communities.

They’re laid off with little notice. Getting on to a job can be difficult if you don’t know the right people, and if you’re an apprentice you face a whole different raft of problems, most notably the lack of certified journeypersons and the inability to get your qualifying hours logged.

The hourly wage ain’t always bad. But the uncertainty and precariousness of the lifestyle is not fit, particularly not for those trying to make a life in our struggling rural communities. And if our province – and its employers – fail to start improving things, we can expect to see even more turbulence in an industry whose workers deserve respect, not repudiation and retaliation.

Range of reactions

The wildcat strike has sparked a range of opinions across the rest of the province. The unions are in a tough spot: since the workers are striking illegally (essentially, they’re acting in defiance of their own union, which has told them to go back to work) the union is obligated to tell them to end the strike and go back to work. The union has argued it’s negotiated the best deal it can for them and that they need to respect that deal.

But the fact workers in Long Harbour are willing to defy both their own union, and their employer, and even the law, ought to tell us something. It ought to tell us that there are serious concerns with the way our province’s recent energy and natural resource ‘prosperity’ is being distributed, with the widening inequality gap among us, and with the difficulties average Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are facing to support their families and build lives here in this province.

Concerns that are reaching a breaking point

Judging from media commentaries and blog posts, a lot of people in the province support the wildcat strike and are glad to see a group of Newfoundlanders supporting each other against the foreign corporations that have come ashore to get rich off our resources.

There’s a lot of admiration for a group of hard-working Newfoundlanders who have finally said ‘enough is enough,’ taken matters into their own hands and effectively made the statement: These resources belong to us, so if you don’t give each of us our fair share you’re not getting any of it either.

But there’s a lot of opposition, too. Many are concerned that actions like this are going to drive away corporations and damage the province’s long term economic prospects. What must be borne in mind, however, is that the very reason there currently IS an economic upswing of any sort in Newfoundland and Labrador is not just because Danny Williams’ government struck hard bargains with the oil companies (remember how many naysayers called on him to give in and let the companies have their way, lest his unpredictable tactics drive them away?).

A wildcat strike…is almost always about three things: desperation, defiance, and dignity.

It’s also because the province’s unions, in turn, fought long and hard for decent wages and working conditions from those corporate employers.

But the unions are in a tough spot. They’re legally obligated to uphold the agreements they signed, even though their own members are now saying those agreements aren’t adequate compared to what workers get from their employers elsewhere. And now, by launching a wildcat strike, many of those workers are in essence rebelling against not only their employer, but their union as well.

Wildcat

A wildcat strike – which is to say, a strike that happens in defiance of a collective agreement (laying out wages and working conditions) that has been signed by a union and which is currently in force – is almost always about three things: desperation, defiance, and dignity.

It’s an act of desperation because workers are saying their backs are to the wall. Their union has struck the best deal it can, yet they’re still faced with the prospect of being treated like second-class citizens in comparison with those workers who leave the province and go somewhere like Alberta. They watch management teams fly in and out and buy up houses for half a million dollars while they can’t even afford a house in their home community to raise their children in.

It’s about defiance because those workers are saying, even if the law, the government, and their wealthy employers are all lined up against them, they will still stand up for their fair share no matter what odds are stacked against them.

Some commentators call this ‘entitlement’. Well, why not? … Shouldn’t every Newfoundlander and Labradorian feel entitled to a home and a secure future for their family and community? To an equal share of our collective wealth and prosperity?

And it’s about dignity because those workers are saying they will not work for anything less than the respect, dignity, and fair and just share they feel is owed them. Some commentators call this ‘entitlement’. Well, why not? Shouldn’t those who dig the wells and build the processing facilities and wire the machinery feel entitled to just as much as the jet-setting management teams who push paper all day? Shouldn’t Newfoundlanders and Labradorians feel entitled to demand that part of their pay include travel allowances so they can live with their families and spend their money in the rural communities that are struggling to stay alive? Shouldn’t every Newfoundlander and Labradorian feel entitled to a home and a secure future for their family and community? To an equal share of our collective wealth and prosperity? Call it entitlement. Or call it pride. Or patriotism. Or maybe just a really sensible idea.

What observers in the rest of the province need to keep in mind is that the economic benefits we are currently enjoying – from the boom in marketing and consulting and IT jobs, to the booming housing market – are due to one thing: the work being done in primary resource industries by people in places like Long Harbour. Without the hard work being done by trades workers and their families and communities around the province to build these industries, there would be no jobs in finance or marketing or IT, no consultants, and no housing market. Those of us working in all these spin-off jobs would either be living somewhere like Alberta ourselves, or drawing EI while looking for work. Now that the trades workers–on whose backs the prosperity of our cities has been built–are demanding their fair share, it behooves us to respect that.

Whichever side you’re on, it’s time to recognize there’s a problem

The issue at stake in the Long Harbour dispute is just the latest manifestation of one that’s affecting us across the province. While the so-called economic boom has been enveloping Newfoundland and Labrador (but, really, the Northeast Avalon), the benefits and wealth are not being distributed equally. Inequality is rising. Corporate profits from this province are the highest in the country, yet provincial incomes are still below the national average (personal income per capita is the second lowest in the country). The amount of provincial GDP going into workers’ salaries and wages is the lowest in the country, while more of our provincial GDP goes into corporate profits than any other province. There’s an imbalance here, and it needs fixing. Until that happens, the result will be our people – and our workers – being forced to resort to increasingly desperate tactics.

Like the wildcat strike in Long Harbour.

The amount of provincial GDP going into workers’ salaries and wages is the lowest in the country, while more of our provincial GDP goes into corporate profits than any other province.

And all of this begs the question – a question we have heard over and over and over again for the past several months, on almost every issue under the sun: Where is our provincial government on this? Whose side are they on? The workers in our rural communities who are struggling to keep our communities alive on the second lowest personal incomes in the country? Or the corporate management teams from Toronto and Brazil?

Wildcat strikes indicate a failure of management (and government leadership)

Let’s be clear: nobody ever WANTS to go on strike. Work is one of the most important ways we express ourselves, demonstrate our creativity and talents, hone our skills, and achieve a certain degree of fulfilment and satisfaction in our lives. When workers make the difficult decision to go on strike, it’s because they’re standing up for some principle that’s even more important to them than all of these things.

In this and other recent cases, the workers of Newfoundland and Labrador are standing up for all of us, demanding to be treated with the dignity they deserve, and to receive the portion of our provincial and corporate wealth that they have worked hard to build.

While the strike may not be good for our economy, the fact that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are willing to defy corporate greed, protect their dignity and refuse to be treated as second-class workers is inspiring to our collective spirit. And unless our government steps up to the plate and begins enforcing that level playing field in a labour relations system that is currently stacked against workers and average Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, we can only expect to see more – a lot more – of these types of wildcat actions in the future.

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