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(Grant Harder)
(Grant Harder)

Do unions have a future? Add to ...

“The only way you can go on strike in this country today is if you’re faster than Lisa Raitt,” says veteran B.C. labour operative Bill Tieleman. He’s referring, of course, to the federal Conservative Labour minister who in 2011 and 2012 set governmental speed records legislating CP Rail, Air Canada and Canada Post employees back to work. “Labour relations today is based on the ability to affect public opinion,” Tieleman says. “It’s no longer about withdrawal of service.” Indeed, Statistics Canada calculates that person-days lost to strikes and lockouts declined by almost 87% between 1980 and 2010. Even in the labour stronghold of British Columbia, the once-militant BC Federation of Labour has accepted a series of pre-emptive orders restricting strikes and job actions.

Those who do strike do so at their peril, as the Canadian Union of Public Employees discovered in Toronto. Public resentment over the garbage that piled up in parks during the 2009 strike helped catapult the notorious Rob Ford into the mayor’s chair. In an administration dogged by controversy, one of Ford’s clearest victories has been to contract out a large number of garbage-collecting jobs that had belonged to CUPE members. The public outcry over this was notable by its absence.

So, the most successful unions have had to find other points of leverage. In Vancouver, for example, UNITE HERE doesn’t strike—or at least it hasn’t struck a major hotel since 2000. And yet, Local 40 president Jim Pearson says the union has concluded a series of agreements that have improved the position of its members, all by using a very simple strategy. “All the companies we deal with put a lot of energy into developing and protecting their brand,” Pearson says. “So anything we do that is damaging to that is very effective.”

What UNITE HERE does is often akin to street theatre. It picks a hotel with a prominent location and organizes weekly demonstrations. Room attendants take to the street, describing to passersby—and reporters—the worst parts of their workdays. On one recent occasion, Local 40 invited some local politicians to “job shadow” attendants for a day. Pearson says the staff loved the show—and the hotel hated it.

Not every campaign is given to that kind of staging. The 2006 strike at the Ekati diamond mine in the Northwest Territories looked like one that could never be won, says Dave Thompson of the Public Service Alliance of Canada. PSAC, while not a traditional “mining” union, is the biggest union in the NWT and, Ekati workers gambled, their best hope for winning a first-contract fight with the mine’s owner, multinational giant BHP Billiton.

When it came time to walk off the job, “There was nowhere to even set up a picket line,” says Thompson, who worked on the campaign. The mine is 300 kilometres north of Yellowknife and, for most of the year, can only be reached on the company plane. Employees also tended to fly in from points all over the map, so again, there was no available choke point.

Ekati is also highly mechanized. Having organized 400 of the 1,200 employees and contractors, PSAC still couldn’t bring operations to a standstill. And even if that had been possible, BHP could have easily waited the union out. Diamonds don’t rot in the ground and there is enough slack in the market to accommodate a decline in supply. So the union wasn’t surprised, after more than a year of trying to negotiate a contract, that it was pushed to strike in early April, and was still not surprised when BHP hadn’t budged by the beginning of June.

But everything changed on June 13. That’s the day the union ran ads in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal decrying Canada’s “dirty diamonds” and calling out BHP for using strikebreakers. It was a direct attack on one of the Canadian mine’s principal sales pitches: that its sparkly products were untainted by human-rights abuses associated with diamonds from Africa. The phone started ringing from around the world. Media from Antwerp, Israel, South Africa and Singapore—“everywhere where somebody cares about diamonds”—were calling for interviews, Thompson says. “We had an agreement in two weeks.”

The best part for PSAC is that once the company understood the union had leverage, it came to the table and has stayed there. “We’ve negotiated two new agreements since—and they’re good agreements,” Thompson says.

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