Monday, December 14, 2009

Christian Labour Association of Canada promotes slashing minimum wage for young adults; Wall gov’t hiding Bill 80 information from public

CLAC Bill 80 brochure, Nov. 2009

The StarPhoenix reported last month that the number of people using food banks in Saskatchewan in 2009 rose six per cent over last year. In Saskatoon, usage rose by 12 per cent. [Food bank usage rises (StarPhoenix, November 18, 2009)]

Regina Food Bank CEO Wayne Hellquist told the Leader-Post recently the food bank needs to feed a record number of families this Christmas.

“The fastest increase we’ve seen in any user group is what we call the working poor. They hold down a job, they might hold down more than one part-time job, they’re earning $10 an hour, but they're trying to feed and clothe and keep their family on $10 or $12 an hour. And if you do the math, it’s virtually impossible. If you’re spending $800 to $1,000 a month on housing, there’s not much left over at the end of the day to insure that your family has a great Christmas,” Hellquist said.

In all, the food bank needs to prepare Christmas hampers for at least 1,800 families – as many as 250 families and 1,500 individuals more than last year. Hellquist also pointed out nearly half of the food bank’s clientele are kids. [Food bank helping more than ever this year (Leader-Post, December 4, 2009)]

On December 4, 2009, the StarPhoenix reported that the wage gap in Saskatchewan is getting worse.

Legions of Saskatchewan workers – general labourers, retail employees, office staff and care home workers – are surviving at or just above the minimum wage of $9.25 an hour, Saskatchewan News Network senior reporter Jason Warick wrote.

Despite Saskatchewan’s image as a bastion of social equality, the separation between high- and low-income earners continues to widen.

“The gap between the richest and poorest families in Saskatchewan has increased dramatically over the past generation and has mushroomed since 2000 -- during the best of economic times,” former University of Regina sociology professor Paul Gingrich wrote in his study Boom and Bust: The growing income gap in Saskatchewan.

According to the study, released in September, Saskatchewan’s income gap is now the largest of all provinces. The richest 10 per cent of Saskatchewan families take home 28 per cent of all income, while those in the entire bottom half earned 20 per cent, Warrick wrote.

Although Saskatchewan’s unemployment rate is low, much of the recent job growth has occurred in the typically low-paying service sector.

“The thought was that Saskatchewan was more egalitarian -- that just isn’t what the figures say,” Gingrich said in an interview.

“It’s a pretty bad situation for the bottom 10 or 20 per cent.”

A growing income gap will lead to a divided society, higher crime rates and poorer overall health, Gingrich said. [Wage disparity widens in Sask. (StarPhoenix, December 4, 2009)]

The provincial minimum wage board reviews the minimum wage every two years.

On September 25, 2009, the provincial government announced that a review was underway and invited the public to submit their opinions and concerns with the minimum wage by October 30, 2009.

It seems as far as the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC) is concerned, the minimum wage is too generous for some people.

In its October 23, 2009, submission to the board CLAC recommends slashing the minimum wage by 10 per cent for people under the age of 21 years.

“A lower minimum wage rate for young and single adults encourages companies to hire youth who require work experience and on-the-job skills training. This approach offers young people opportunities to develop their skills for long term employment beyond summer and occasional employment while they attend school,” said the letter’s author, Chris Bosch, CLAC’s director of research and education.

Bosch says a high minimum wage for young people encourages early withdrawal from school and notes that public policy should encourage young people to get essential workplace skills while they attend school.

CLAC’s recommendation seems ill conceived and contradicts other statements in its submission.

Bosch notes that “a guaranteed minimum wage is an important provision for workers.” He said it attempts to provide adequate incomes to young people entering the labour market for the first time; for low-skilled adults workers who, in many cases and through no-fault of their own, are not candidates for higher-paid employment but still require the means to provide for themselves; and for single-parent households where the ravages of child poverty are most apparent.

Incredibly, Bosch says CLAC is “a labour union concerned for the welfare of Saskatchewan workers.”

What kind of labour union fights for lower wages that would cause additional hardship for those barely getting by or push others on the bubble over the edge into even greater poverty and despair?

Not only does the CLAC proposal discriminate against a person’s age it would also penalize young and single adults with children. It would hurt those under 21 years of age that aren’t in school or not living at home. It would also hammer first and second year post secondary students trying to hold down a job while they’re in school.

Present legislation does not permit CLAC to unionize construction companies in Saskatchewan. Construction workers who work for unionized sites must join the union associated with their particular trade. Bargaining is held on a province wide basis by trade.

CLAC, along with business lobby groups like the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce, lobbied the right wing Saskatchewan Party government to change the legislation.

On March 10, 2009, their wish was granted as the provincial government introduced amendments to The Construction Industry Labour Relations Act, 1992 (CILRA) that would allow groups like CLAC to organize in Saskatchewan.

According to records obtained through a freedom of information request, Paul de Jong, the Prairies director of the CLAC, and Mike Carr, an associate deputy minister with Advanced Education, Employment and Labour (AEEL), were in contact up to a week before the bill’s introduction.

In a March 3, 2009, email to Carr, de Jong alluded to an earlier conversation and seemed to be providing information that Carr requested.

“When we last spoke,” de Jong said. “You reminded me that it would be helpful to provide some sense of how many members we have working in, or based from, Saskatchewan. Using 2008 statistics, it would appear that we have 1270 members who live in Saskatchewan, and work elsewhere (typically in Alberta). However, some of these members actually both live and work in SK, as we have contractors such as Pyramid Electrical Corporation, who have permanent/ongoing maintenance work within the province. Also, contractors have, and continue to, work in the province on a variety of construction projects. On these projects CLAC continues to represent the employees, but with the crucial difference being that we are not able to conclude a legal collective agreement on which those members can rely.

“Many of our contractors continue to ask me about our prospects in SK, as they, notwithstanding the current economic slowdown, are in a position to bid on a variety of infrastructure and private sector construction projects that continue to be released. These contractors are very keen to see evidence that they/we can operate legally within the province.

“Any updated information you could provide about the legislative process would be much appreciated.”

Carr replied on March 4, 2009: “Paul this is very helpful thanks. We are moving ahead as planned and expect to have some positive announcements perhaps as early as next week. We will be touch. Thanks again.”

Carr did indeed keep in touch with de Jong sending him at least three more emails with the last one coming on the day the legislation was introduced.

Confident of success CLAC opened an office in Saskatoon on July 1, 2009. [Bill 80, new union threat to construction workers: SFL (StarPhoenix, June 24, 2009)]

Speaking at a North Saskatoon Business Association luncheon on November 27, 2009, AEEL Minister Rob Norris told a crowd of more than 200 people that the legislation would pass.

“Bill 80 is a priority for this government. This bill is going to pass,” Norris said. [Bill 80 will pass, Norris tells crowd (StarPhoenix, November 28, 2009)]

During that same week households in Regina and Saskatoon received a feel good colour brochure from CLAC promoting the so-called union and Bill 80.

Oddly, the one thing the pamphlet didn’t say is what the CLAC acronym stands for. Not once is the word Christian mentioned. It’s assumed the reason for this is they’re afraid of scaring people off. That in itself says a lot.

The flyer appears to fulfill one of the group’s objectives outlined in its original constitution and by-laws adopted at the first convention on April 24, 1954: “To reach its aim the C.L.A. of C. shall… Make propaganda by the written and spoken word for Christian economic and industrial principles and their proper application; and counteract the unwholesome propaganda of radical labour groups inspired by anarchistic or communistic principles.”

CLAC’s aim as stated in the constitution is: “To organize workers in trade and industrial unions, for the purpose of propagating, establishing and maintaining justice in the sphere of labour and industry, and promoting the economic, social and moral interests of the workers through the practical application of Christian principles in collective bargaining and other means of mutual aid or protection.”

The language used in CLAC’s current literature may have softened since then but the underlying aim, principles and objectives generally seem to be the same.

The provincial government, meanwhile, is continuing to hide information about Bill 80 from the public.

In response to an access to information request made October 20, 2009, AEEL released two heavily censored briefing notes dated September 15 and October 8, 2009, in which ministry officials completely blacked out the ‘key messages’ portion in each. Also redacted were details on the bill’s current status.

For most briefing notes it’s the key messages that are used by ministers or senior staff to sell a particular initiative to the public. In this case if the key messages aren’t for the public then who are they for?

The Brad Wall government contends that Bill 80 will be good for Saskatchewan but at the same time goes out of its way to withhold as much information as possible.

Paul de Jong and Mike Carr emails, March 3-4, 2009

CLAC Constitution and By-Laws adopted April 24, 1954

AEEL Bill 80 briefing note, Sept. 15, 2009

AEEL Bill 80 briefing note, Oct. 8, 2009