` Columbia Journal - On taking a stand
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On taking a stand

by Dave Thompson

"The hottest place in hell is reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis maintain their neutrality." - Dante, 1265-1361


In my many years as an activist and trade union member I have never seen a more brutal attack on society (short of open warfare) as the one we are experiencing from the Campbell Government. This government thinks nothing of tearing up collective agreements, legislating workers back to work, and ignoring legally won "binding" arbitrations. They are marching at blinding speed on a path dictated by a great deal of ideological zeal and mean spirited revenge supported by very little common sense.

Even those who supported Campbells Liberals from the board rooms of Vanocuver are beginning to question what is happening.

Lawyers have called a meeting for April 12, to vote on sanctioning Attorney General Plant for cutting off funding to Legal Aid. This will be a history making vote whether the motion is defeated or not. Many of these Lawyers supported the Liberals and work for clients who supported the liberal.

Just this week we have the beginning of another wholesale attack on working people. It comes in the form of announced changes to the Labour Code. These proposals are subtle in form but draconian in effect. We are faced with a return to a Vander Zalm, Bill 19 style code -- a code that some experts claimed was the second most regressive code in North America, leaving Alberta as number one.

The most subtle of all changes is the re-write of the "Purpose " clause in the Code. The average working person has no way of comprehending just how destructive that clause will be when the Labour Board uses it to "interpret" our legal rights. This clause will be used to interpret every other provision in the Code. It will allow and even force Board decisions which will strip all protection from employees and their unions. It will even be used to overturn future arbitration awards which up until now would have been considered "slam dunk" winners for unions because it will force arbitrators to adopted new approaches which are at odds with decades of neutral balanced arbitration precedent and in conflict with labour law everywhere else in Canada and the U.S. In effect, any employer will be able to say "you cannot apply the contract we negotiated with the union because it will affect our bottom line." The Campbell government will be replacing the law of balanced labour relations with the law of the marketplace. Some business people will say: "It's about time -- the marketplace should prevail!" and some journalists and even many working people will say: "That's right. After all, we do have to compete in a global economy." Of course any economist worth his salt would point out that we cannot ever compete successfully with the grinding sweatshop conditions in the 'third world'. Our only hope is to compete as a highly educated and skilled workforce and that will always mean a more expensive workforce.

The new code language and the rational behind it also conveniently ignores the almost unlimited ability of business to present their financial picture that suits their immediate needs. In construction this is especially noticeable. Companies are consistently shifting assets, holding shares in trust, hiding the identity of shareholders in federally registered companies and using shadow companies with little or no assets. Purchasers of leaky condos found this out in spades. Often the legal entity which supposedly built their shoddy buildings were folded up within days of the sale of the last condo unit. The builders and developers made millions and walked away leaving behind an empty corporate shell with no assets.

Construction contractors have become experts in creating and collapsing dummy companies to defeat employee rights and to confound the taxman. Unions who want any chance of defending their rights will have to hire investigators and forensic auditors. The relatively balanced labour law system will become a legal zoo.

Don't get me wrong there are plenty of fine people who run construction companies. But they are already finding it difficult to compete with those who cut corners and are prepared to cheat the consumer and their employees at every turn. And it is becoming very clear that some of the very worst of the worst are the same people who have the ear of the Campbell insiders in the back rooms in Victoria.

If we allow Campbell and the boys to get away with their cynical sleight of hand, it will not just be unionized construction workers who will lose out. Unionized wages help keep up the wages of the non-union. Safety will suffer as workers scramble to hold onto their jobs. The economy will suffer because the construction industry will no longer inject money into it to support home ownership and decent standards of living. Finally the consumer will suffer because a worker who is left with no rights will not be able to refuse to follow orders and build more shoddy buldings.

In 1983 - the last massive onslaught against employee rights, the labour leadership was divided and we made some mistakes. This time we have a more united movement. We have learned the lessons of the past and we will put up strong sustained and successful resistance. Up till this last week some people thought the government was going to focus it's attack on the public sector. Those of us who have been through these battles before knew full well that it would not take long for the other shoe to drop.

Campbell has already gone a long way to putting our economy on its back. Now he is forcing us into a political and economic war which will further damage the economy. But we have no choice. Without justice there can be no peace.




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