Tuesday, May 20, 2014

With Teacher Ultimatum, BC Liberal Government Just Kicked the Hornet's Nest

And the angry teachers are coming out.

Bill Tieleman's 24 Hours Vancouver / The Tyee online column
Tuesday May 20, 2014
By Bill Tieleman
"Don't poke a hornet's nest and expect butterflies to come out."
Call it the government that kicked the hornet's nest, because the BC Liberals have done exactly the wrong thing in trying to reach a deal with the BC Teachers' Federation.
On Friday, the BC Public School Employers' Association announced it would cut teachers' salaries by five per cent unless the two parties reach a deal by June 30, intending to scare the union into accepting positions it has rejected to date.
BCPSEA will make it a 10 per cent cut if teachers take further but limited job action.
But instead, the government poked the proverbial hornet's nest and no butterflies flew out -- just angry teachers on Twitter.
Unfortunately, that's the pattern the BC Liberals repeatedly follow when it comes to teachers, despite being warned by a recent B.C. Supreme Court decision that they've been dead wrong.
Rather than increase the likelihood of a settlement, veteran government negotiator Peter Cameron -- a former militant union representative -- has angered teachers and hardened the union's resolve to fight harder.
The threat also obliterated any goodwill from Thursday's employer offer of a $1,200 signing bonus if a new collective agreement was reached by June 30 and to give up on its 10-year deal demand.
The union will now ask the B.C. Labour Relations Board to stop BCPSEA from threatening to dock teachers' pay.
Gov't genius: reuse failed tactics
Can the board's decision be predicted before the hearing even begins?
Not with 100 per cent certainty, but one needs only look at B.C. Supreme Court Justice Susan Griffin's scathing January decision, which trashed the BC Liberal government for deliberately provoking a strike in a previous 2011 dispute, to get a clue.
"Another aspect of these pressure tactics was to have BCPSEA [the teachers' employer group] apply for an order of the Labour Relations Board to vary previous essential services orders so that districts could reduce teachers' pay. This application was brought but was unsuccessful," Griffin wrote.
More government genius: use tactics that failed before again.
Of course, Cameron and his boss, Education Minister Peter Fassbender, say this is simply the stick to go with the bonus carrot -- that's how you bargain. And they say that Griffin's overall ruling that the government intentionally tried to provoke a full-scale strike in 2011-12 is under appeal.
But they are provoking a strike again, and the reason is simple.
If all teachers walk off the job, the government believes it can legislatively impose a contract that it couldn't negotiate fairly.
Indeed, that was Griffin's conclusion regarding the 2011 situation: "The government thought that a teachers' strike would give the government a political advantage in imposing legislation that the public might otherwise not support."
But with zero success to date, and multiple court decisions in favour of the union over the years, it's more than likely the BC Liberals are going to get stung again.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Locked out for a Year, Courageous Richmond IKEA Workers Won't Back Down Against Billionaire

Locked out Teamsters members at IKEA
But can a small group of workers ever take on a global giant?

Bill Tieleman's 24 Hours Vancouver / The Tyee online column

Tuesday May 13, 2014

By Bill Tieleman

IKEA's hardball tactics in BC may reflect a creeping Americanization of labor-management relations in Canada."
- Professor John Logan, San Francisco State University
When the company owned by the world's fifth richest man challenges 350 unionized workers in Richmond, B.C. and demands they take concessions, you know it's a David versus Goliath fight.
But IKEA workers now locked out for a year won't give in to billionaire owner Ingvar Kamprad.
The lockout illustrates the difficult challenges faced by organized labour in B.C. when a small group of local workers is pitted against a big, multinational corporation.
It's not just IKEA workers in Richmond who are having trouble with their employer -- IKEA has been accused of labour rights violations by workers in the United States, Turkey, Russia, France, Italy Ireland and other countries.
The company has been mired in several international controversies, including the 2012 admission that for up to 30 years political prisoners in forced labour factories in East Germany were manufacturing products IKEA sold in Europe.
"We deeply regret that this could happen. The use of political prisoners has never been acceptable to the Ikea Group," Jeanette Skjelmose, the company's sustainability manager said at the time.
But the "flat pack" furniture giant lumbers on, and the year-long dispute that has left about 300 Teamsters members on the picket line and about 35 workers crossing it to work at the still partially-open store continues.
For its part, IKEA is standing pat, saying that the stumbling block to get a new contract is what happens to the 35 workers.
"We are committed to going back to the bargaining table with or without a mediator in an effort to reach a fair resolution -- but the union needs to demonstrate a willingness to bargain on all open items," IKEA Canada's Madeleine Löwenborg-Frick wrote via email on Sunday. "It is the Teamsters' refusal to bargain on the expelled employees that is prolonging the strike."
Anita Dawson, Teamsters' Local 213 business agent, disagrees.
"We're not asking for those workers to be fired and never have. They could be transferred to another store or moved into management," Dawson said on Monday. "The company is trying to make that the issue, but it is within their own power to resolve it."
A serious disadvantage
Talk about a Goliath: IKEA owner Kamprad was estimated by Bloomberg to be worth a staggering US$41.8 billion in 2012, putting him just behind Microsoft mogul Bill Gates.
Kamprad even left Sweden in the 1970s to live in Switzerland, in protest of his home country's high taxes. He only recently returned after Sweden's centre-right government abolished a wealth tax and reduced income taxes.
Kamprad's enormous wealth puts IKEA workers and their union at a serious disadvantage.
IKEA could indefinitely ignore the dispute, which it argues is a strike, without noticing any painful loss in revenue. Of the company's 12 stores in Canada, only one other, in Montreal, is unionized.
If the company has an Achilles heel, however, it is in its Swedish roots and professed values of corporate social responsibility.
"IKEA's low prices must never be achieved at the expense of people or the environment. That is a condition for doing good business," IKEA's website states.
"By co-operating with companies, trade unions and organisations, we are able to learn, share experiences and accomplish more than we could have done by working on our own," IKEA also says.
That stated commitment is why the Teamsters have enlisted the help of Nordic union organizations to help publicize the company's corporate behaviour, which they allege includes demanding concessions, encouraging and rewarding employees who crossed their own union's picket line, promoting contact with LabourWatch, a group that helps decertify unions, and delaying bargaining.
But do the Teamsters have enough resources and the workers enough time and resolve to put the pressure needed on IKEA to end the dispute?
An international union strategist from London who observed a Nordic labour delegation's fact-finding mission on the dispute warned about the challenge.
"If you're going to challenge a big company, you need to work across borders, because [picketing] one store in Richmond is not enough to get the message across," Erin van der Maas of the International Transport Workers Federation told The Tyee last November.
Peter Lövkvist, secretary of the 400,000 strong Nordic Transport Workers Federation, visited with Richmond workers and also met with IKEA in order to write a report titled "How IKEA Is Hurting Families." Lövkvist seemed shocked at IKEA's indifference to its local workers.
"IKEA has a good reputation in Sweden. It's a good employer. But it seems the farther away from Sweden they get, the worse IKEA gets in labour relations," Lövkvist told The Tyee in November.
Fight gone on 'too long': IKEA
The Teamsters' Dawson said that IKEA is feeling pressure, with its Richmond store suffering.
"They don't have the full store open -- there is no restaurant or kids' room, no returns or exchanges -- so obviously it's having an impact," Dawson said. "There is a marked reduction in the number of vehicles going into Richmond."
But IKEA's Löwenborg-Frick disagrees. "The attempted boycott has not affected our business. Most importantly, it is not a productive measure that will get the parties closer to a resolution," she said.
"The store is open and has continued to run successfully through some of our busiest times. Everyone in the store is working hard to serve the more than 1.25 million visitors who have continued to shop at IKEA Richmond during the strike. We have no reason to believe that we cannot continue to operate as we are," she concluded.
Veteran observer Mark Thompson, professor emeritus of labour relations at the University of British Columbia, said the Teamsters' position is "pretty normal."
"The guys on the picket line are watching these other people walk in happily every day and collect their pay. It's a very emotional thing," Thompson told Business In Vancouver newspaper in January.
IKEA's Löwenborg-Frick said the parties remain far apart.
"At this time there are 16 outstanding items between the parties, including critical issues such as wages and benefits as well as the employment status of the employees the union wants terminated," she wrote.
Do the union and IKEA agree on anything?
"This strike has gone on too long, longer than anyone expected," Löwenborg-Frick stated.
The IKEA workers on the picket line doubtlessly agree. But the Teamsters' Dawson said things have changed at the store in recent years.
"We used to have a good labour-management relationship at Richmond," Dawson said. "Now they're not looking to find solutions, and there has been a big increase in grievances."
So, can a small group of workers beat a giant?
They have the courage of David facing Goliath, but so far seem to lack the critical slingshot needed for an upset victory.

And if they lose, other multinational employers in Canada will likely follow the same approach.


Monday, May 12, 2014

Christy Clark's Gas Gamble Now Risks Your Kid's Post-Secondary Education, Too

BC Premier Christy Clark tours Petronas LNG plant in Malaysia, 2014
Premier doubles down more than money on dicey LNG industry.

Bill Tieleman’s 24 Hours Vancouver /The Tyee column

Tuesday May 6, 2013

By Bill Tieleman

"The descent of the university into the market place reflects the lie in the soul of modern society."

- Harold Innis, Canadian political economist, 1894-1952

The best way to gamble is with other people's money. But as Premier Christy Clark doubles down her bet on liquefied natural gas in a world market riskier than a casino, it's not just your money she's gambling with -- it's also your children and grandchildren's future education.

Clark's recent, breathless photo-op announcement that energy firms Shell Canada, PetroChina, Korea Gas and Mitsubishi have agreed to join something called "LNG Canada" is nearly meaningless without signed agreements to extract, process and export liquefied natural gas.
Even LNG Canada CEO Andy Calitz admitted potential projects "are challenged by significant financial investment and risks" and "a number of uncertainties to overcome."
That's a fracking understatement.
Recent studies on the world LNG market are clear it's no sure bet B.C. will develop a substantial industry.
Less reported was that Shell Canada bought five per cent of both Korea Gas and Mitsubishi's share in LNG Canada -- it now owns 50 per cent and PetroChina 20 per cent, while Korea Gas and Mitsubishi have dropped to 15 per cent each, with Korea Gas admitting its government ordered the company to reduce its debts.
Did I mention it's your money Clark is betting on LNG?
Then, just last week, the B.C. premier made another announcement -- one related to this industry plagued by "risks" and "uncertainties."
Clark's government is forcing all post-secondary institutions to re-direct their budgets to allocate 25 per cent into job training for "high demand" occupations -- and you can wager that the three education initials it wants to see are LNG, not PhD.
With $1.9 billion currently budgeted in B.C. for post-secondary education and only 10 per cent currently earmarked for "high demand" fields, Clark's move means radical, long-lasting change.
Pipe fitters or poets?
Putting more emphasis on trades training is good and long overdue.
But that's because the BC Liberals' track record on trades training is disastrous, having set back critical apprenticeships in a wide range of occupations by a decade through political pandering to some business allies.
B.C.'s apprenticeship training completion rate is about 40 per cent, compared to Alberta's 78 per cent and the national average of 50 per cent.
Through my work with unions and businesses in natural resource extraction and construction, I know the negative results of that skilled trades shortage in many areas, and strongly support more training.
Clark's pledge to involve both unions and businesses in training decisions is a welcome change from ex-premier Gordon Campbell's refusal to consult labour.
But while LNG companies want very specifically trained workers, other employers say a generalized education gives them the flexibility needed for an ever-changing economy.
Jim McNerney, CEO of Boeing, said of the liberal arts in 2011: "Leadership is about the social and interpersonal skills that these disciplines teach. The breadth of the education experience is a primary source of leadership."
And a Harvard University professor who helped submit a report to Congress on whether government should support science and technology or the liberal arts was clear on the value of arts:
"Students should be prepared not just for their first job but for their fourth and fifth jobs, as there is little reason to doubt that people entering the workforce today will be called upon to play many different roles over the course of their careers," Annette Gordon-Reed said. "The ones who will do best in this new environment will be those whose educations have prepared them to be flexible."
In other words, educate both pipe fitters and poets.
The house always wins
B.C. shouldn't gamble with post-secondary education simply to provide workers for an unproven industry with an unclear future and an unknown commitment to job creation.
Of course, Clark disagrees. In February she said: "I think we should be making sure we are providing programming in our postsecondary institutions that provides people, young and old, with the promise and prospect of prosperity when they graduate."
Clark, who never graduated from university or earned a trade ticket herself, desperately wants her big LNG gamble to pay off -- and taxpayers have to hope it does, with our money on the table.
But when betting in a casino, remember that while you are sometimes dealt a great hand, in the end the house always wins.