President Kevin Rebeck’s Speech to the NDP Convention

February 12, 2014

Good Afternoon Sister and Brothers

Let me start by telling you that it gives me great pleasure to stand here this afternoon to bring you greetings on behalf of the unions that are affiliated to the Manitoba Federation of Labour and the more than 96 thousand working people and their families that they represent.

I’ve been to Convention many times over the past twenty years as a delegate and I’ve been at many a floor mike to speak in support of or in opposition to a resolution.  But this is the first time I’ve stood at the podium to deliver formal remarks on behalf of your sisters and brothers in the labour movement.  Things sure look a lot different from up here!

In fact, many delegates here today are active, former or retired members of unions who have worked hard over the years to help make our shared vision of a compassionate, fair and equitable society a reality.  I’d like those delegates to stand now and give this Convention a wave.

These are the men and women that form an important part of the Manitoba NDP and an important part of Caucus.  Our caucuses, past and present were partly made up of women and men who were members of unions.  Among others, they were educators, municipal or provincial employees, they were miners and loggers, they were farmers and supporters of the National Farmers Union, they were health care workers, and they were railroaders.

They came from Unions that have, or had, names like the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the Manitoba Government Employees Association, now the Manitoba Government and General Employees Union.  They came from the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, the United Steelworkers, the Manitoba Teachers Society, University Faculty Associations, the Manitoba Nurses Union, the Canadian Auto Workers, the Communications Energy and Paper Workers Union, now joined together and known as Unifor.

The New Democratic Party and the labour movement have common roots that stretch back to the early decades of the last century when both social movements were in their formative years.  Many of the sisters and brothers, who learned how to organize their co-workers and pool their collective strength and creativity in order to create the union movement, were among the delegates to the Regina convention and similar meetings across the Prairies that spawned the CCF and other progressive political organizations.  They brought the skills and abilities they learned while organizing unions and taking on big business to the political world.

This partnership between workers and social activists has had a profound impact on the fabric of Manitoba and Canada.  It created the political groundwork and voter activism that was needed to force political parties that held power to undertake major elements of our social agenda.  It led to the establishment of things like Unemployment Insurance, Old Age Security, the Canada Pension Plan, publicly funded health care among many.  This partnership, in many ways, was a remarkable game-changer that established us as a country that was the envy of many others around the world.

The fact is – our partnership made many things possible.  It gave unions and their members a political voice.  It helped them elect labour friendly MPs and MLAs, men and women who often came from union ranks and understood the values and goals of labour.  These women and men had a moderating influence on the legislative process, even when the levers of power were being pulled by Conservatives and Liberals.
The upside for the CCF and, subsequently the NDP, was that it gained access to a large pool of individuals and organization skilled in quick-response and long-term organizing and fund-raising.  Remember, direct contributions by the union movement to political parties were still legal then.

I think that it’s those abilities that have made the union movement such a tempting target for Conservative and Liberal governments – they hate it when social justice groups organize to oppose their policies and turn to the union movement for help.  These groups are able to quickly mount opposition to bad government policy, very quickly and effectively because of the union movement.

An example of joint action and cooperation comes to mind to demonstrate the value of our relationship.
When the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation of Canada fell on hard times following the federal election of 1958, when it was reduced to only eight seats in the House of Commons.  Over the next three years, the CCF leadership undertook a significant re-structuring program in the party and in 1961 entered a formal partnership with the Canadian Labour Congress to launch the New Democratic Party of Canada.
Therein lays the answer to the often asked question, “Why does the Labour Movement devote so much effort to support the NDP and why does the NDP preserve its ties to the Labour Movement?”  The answer is plain.

We are us.

The Labour movement helped create the NDP out of the ashes of the CCF.  The NDP and the labour movement share a common vision, common values and common goals.  To paraphrase Dr. Elaine Bernard, head of Labour Studies at the Harvard School of Business and a former BC-based NDP and labour activist, “Unions can’t leave politics alone because politics won’t leave Unions alone.”

That’s why union members come to this convention every year to table and debate resolutions that deal with, not only the full range of discussion topics considered at Convention, but also resolutions on union issues that ask for the party to support our struggle for worker rights.

But it is a course that is not always a simple one.  Even with the support of this Convention, getting action from an NDP government on some of our key issues is not always on a timely track.  For some labour activists, it can be a bit frustrating.

Having said that, I can also say that while Government doesn’t go fast enough or far enough for everyone in the labour movement, we’re at least assured that we’re going in the right direction.

The evidence to support that statement is on the public record.  Since 1999, the NDP governments of Manitoba have passed many measures in support of all working families.  I’d like to highlight and celebrate a few of them for you:

• Important improvements in Workplace Safety and Health legislation and regulations have been made.
• The Workers Compensation Board Act was overhauled with important improvements.
• In 2012, the Labour Minister commissioned an external review of the WCB rate model to examine the extent to which it is encouraging illegal claims suppression and overly aggressive return to work practices and an implementation plan is being developed.
• At $10.45 an hour, Manitoba now has the highest minimum wage in Canada.
• In 2000, the NDP government repealed many of the regressive amendments made by the Filmon Conservatives restoring balance to the Labour Relations Act
• In 2000, the government also repealed unfair restrictions imposed by the Filmon Conservative government on teachers’ collective bargaining.
• In 2010, the NDP government implemented a comprehensive modernization of the Pension Benefits Act.
• The NDP government has actively supported labour’s call for an expansion of the Canada Pension Plan and increasing the General Income Supplement to lift thousands of seniors out of poverty. They have worked for these goals at the negotiating table with federal and provincial governments.
• Premier Selinger has been an outspoken critics of the Harper Conservatives’ cuts to Old Age Security.
• The NDP government replaced the Conservatives’ essential services legislation that stripped collective bargaining rights from health care workers and tipped the balance of power in favour of employers. The new Health Care Essential Services Act restores balance to health care bargaining while still protecting front-line patient care and respecting health care workers’ right to free collective bargaining.
• In 2012, the NDP government passed the Public Private Partnership Transparency and Accountability Act to ensure any P3 projects are subject to independent cost analysis and public scrutiny, before and after approval.
• The NDP government has committed to keep Manitoba Hydro public and passed a law to protect Manitoba Hydro against privatization.
• Immediately after the election of the Filmon Conservative government, provincial funding for the Community Unemployed Help Centre was eliminated. Immediately after the election of the NDP in 1999, funding for this vital advocacy agency for workers’ rights was restored. Annual funding for the CUHC has been almost tripled since then, with new resources supporting an expansion of the agency’s mandate to include advocacy in provincial social Employment and Income Assistance program. Funding since 1999 totals $1.2 million.
• The NDP government has begun annual funding for the new Brandon and District Worker Advocacy Centre, once again providing a service that had been provided in Brandon until funding was eliminated by the newly elected Filmon Conservative government in 1988. The Centre provides advocacy services to workers in western Manitoba in the areas of Employment Insurance, workers compensation, and other social benefit programs.

These are some of the things that are possible when labour and the NDP work together on behalf of Working Families.

As usual, there’s a “but”, and here it is.

After listening to that list of advances, no doubt some of you are wondering right now, “Will these people never be happy?  Why do they keep bringing the same resolutions calling for anti-scab and card-check legislation to every Convention?

”Well, let me tell you why.

In the 1980’s, if a union were able to satisfy the Manitoba Labour Board that it had signed up 55% of the members of a potential bargaining unit to be members of that union, the Labour Board would grant automatic certification of that union as bargaining agent for all members of the bargaining unit.  This is what we refer to as an automatic certification based on union membership cards signed, or “card check”.  This removed the necessity for a secret ballot vote by the bargaining unit members to say what was already apparent, that a majority of the workers want to be unionized.

Fast forward to 1992, when the Filmon Conservatives increased the threshold for automatic certification to 65%, and then did away with it completely, as part of a larger attack on worker rights.  As of that moment, we entered a period in Manitoba when union organizing was marked by a massive increase in employer intimidation tactics to frustrate union organizing.

Access to certification could only be triggered by an application by the union.  The application, a public document, was then shared with the employer. From that moment on, many employers would embark on a campaign of intimidation, firings, padding employee lists with fictitious names to drive the threshold up and a myriad of other tactics, all designed to defeat the union application.

Organizing the unorganised became a lot more difficult.

The Labour movement in Manitoba fought back as hard as we could against this measure, and others, but with a Conservative government at the wheel, it was one defeat after another.

We campaigned hard to get NDP MLA’s elected in order to undo these regressive measures and by 1999 we had success.  An NDP government led by Gary Doer was elected and heard our arguments that the regressive legislation passed by the Filmon Conservatives should be repealed.  Since then, many of the worst Conservative measures were done away with.

I’m sad to say that when automatic certification was restored to the labour relations process, it was returned to 65%, the highest threshold of all jurisdictions where automatic certification exists in Canada.  Not to 55% where it was before Filmon had his way and not at our preferred threshold of 50% + one as it was at the federal level and in some provinces, notably Saskatchewan.

Since 1992, labour and its supporters have sent resolutions to this convention, asking that automatic certification be set at a fair and just threshold.  Much to the credit of delegates to NDP conventions, they were always debated and passed, usually unanimously.  But the fact remains, employers are still able to deny a worker’s right to join a union through intimidation and threats if the union is unable to sign up 65% of the potential members before making an application to the Labour Board for certification.

That is wrong.  It’s wrong today and it’s going to be wrong tomorrow if the government of Manitoba doesn’t restore the spirit of right to organize to the labour relations act.

Another resolution that we always send here deals with anti-scab legislation.  This concept points to the fundamental unfairness that has always been a feature of Manitoba’s labour relations environment.  It has always been legal for an employer to hire scabs during a strike or a lockout in Manitoba.  That is the foundation for the huge imbalance of power between employers and workers that persists today.

The result of that imbalance can be measured by the fact that wage increases in most sectors have been flat for nearly thirty years in Canada – in most cases, barely keeping up with the rate of inflation and, in some cases, not even attaining that standard.  Wages, in pure monetary terms, have been increasing, but their purchasing power hasn’t.  For the top wage earners, things have been great.  Not so for the rest of the workforce.  That’s why are op-ed analysis pieces in newspapers and news magazines on a weekly basis that make the case that most wage earners haven’t shared in the recovery from recessions the way those at the top of income scales have.

When things go south – they say it’s the fault of union wage scales.  When economic indicators turn around, it’s the result of brilliant corporate and political leadership.

The reality is, workers don’t come up with the numbskull business decisions that bring recessions on – but the results of workers’ sweat and productivity can sure as hell bring an economy out of recession.
One of the greatest tools that can be used to move the balance of power closer to optimum is to pass an anti-scab law and enforce it.  That’s an idea this Convention has agreed with, usually unanimously, since 1978 when it was first adopted as party policy.

Since then, it has sat on the shelf, even though my predecessors argued that action was necessary.  In 1987, then-MFL President Wilf Hudson put it this way:
“If both sides, labour and management, had equal rights in that workplace, then the operation would be suspended until such time as a new agreement is negotiated.  Instead, management has the right to continue conducting its business as if the employees had never existed.”

Did you know that under today’s law, it is perfectly fine for an employer to break off negotiations, lock the work force out, and then hire scabs and continue operating?  That, I believe, defines the essence of imbalance of power in the workplace.

Has any Canadian jurisdiction ever enacted anti-scab legislation?  Certainly.  It exists in a weak form in the Canada Labour Code, it was enacted in the province of Quebec in 1977.  It was briefly enacted by an NDP government in Ontario in 1992.  A year later it was enacted in British Columbia.  In 1995, the Mike Harris Conservatives repealed it in Ontario.

The point of this is, other governments in Canada have had the political courage to take action on this demand in various ways – why not here in Manitoba, where governments who are concerned about workers rights have held power for 30 out of the past 45 years?

What do we know about the impact of not having anti-scab laws in place?  We know that strikes tend to be longer when scabs are brought in to do the work normally done by workers who are on strike or are locked out.  We know that the potential for violent confrontation in increased as scabs are pushed through the picket line by thugs hired by the employer for this purpose.  We know that strikes are more bitter, making it difficult to restore civil relations in the workplace after a settlement is reached and reduced productivity for a period following the settlement is inevitable.  All of these things don’t have to be, if there is an anti-scab law on the books.

What happens if there is such a law?  We know from experience that, initially, after it is passed, there is an increase in the number of strikes that last for a shorter period of time.  But we also know from experience that the number of strikes dies back down as employers and unions get used to the new law and its affect. There are no violent incidents at the company gate with no scab buses coming through. 

In other words, the economy is not going to fail.  Business and jobs aren’t going to flee.  There just needs to be a break-in period before everything is back on an even keel.

These are the reasons why automatic certification and an anti-scab law are so important to the House of Labour.  These are the reasons why we can’t stop raising these issues with government and at this Convention.  These are the reasons why we won’t stop.

Organized labour is under siege today.  We have a Federal Government that is determined to bring every aspect of right-to-work laws into Canada from the US, where union busting has been perfected.  Those of you who aren’t familiar with the phrase “right-to-work” must be thinking right now, “What’s wrong with right-to-work?  Sounds like everyone should have the right to work.

Right-to-work is a phrase cooked up by anti-union companies and legislators that is meant to disguise their real intention.  It is abuse of the English language.  It means exactly the opposite of what it says.  It is the finest example of Orwellian double-speak to enter every day dialogue in capitalist circles.

Right-to-work laws are specifically designed to try to prevent the emergence of new unions and bargaining units.  They are specifically designed to try to make it impossible for existing unions to continue operating, to provide critical services to their members, to participate in democratic politics – lobbying for laws and policies that will benefit working people generally or their members specifically.

They prevent employers from deducting union dues from bargaining unit members paychecks, making the payment of union dues totally voluntary.  They limit the union’s activity to servicing a contract and trying to prevent the union from being active at election time or supporting their social justice allies.  They try to make it impossible for certification votes to occur without employers being allowed to interfere with the vote as much as possible.  They try to tie the union up with meaningless and expensive paperwork, to bleed off staff time and financial resources.

The same agenda is unfolding in provinces that are governed by right wing parties today.  If a Conservative government is elected here in Manitoba, the right-to-work agenda will appear the next day.

We’ve seen it before.  In Manitoba in the mid ‘90’s, the Filmon government attacked the union movement at-large through a series of regressive changes to the Labour Relations Act.  These changes were intended to restrict the abil¬ity of workers to form unions, and to diminish the ability of unions to make gains at the bargaining table.  One of those changes was the re-placement of automatic certification with mandatory votes in order to get certification.  You already know how I feel about that.  Another attack was focused on the ability of public sector unions to mount effective strike action by deeming many of the job classifications as essential, and workers in those jobs were barred from strike action.

That is why the union movement continues to struggle for fairer labour laws and a fairer balance of power in the workplace.  Because we’re never actually out of somebody’s cross-hairs.

I love speaking at an NDP Convention, either from a floor mike on a specific topic or from this spot.  I love it because I know that I’m speaking with Sisters and Brothers.  I’m talking with my friends and neighbors – to the people that I respect.

Labour and the NDP truly do have a shared vision of society, both when it comes to analyzing its problems and imagineering the solutions.  We know where we are, we know where we want to be and best of all, we know how to get there…by working hard together and supporting each other.

That is why that I will work as hard as I can, for as long as I can, in as many ridings as I can, in order to see the election of a record breaking fifth majority NDP government in Manitoba.  I will persuade and I will cajole as many union activists, both long-time and first timers, to join me on the doorstep talking to as many voters as we can, to attain that goal.

In the spirit of Solidarity, I ask you to support workers and their unions in the days ahead.  Help us attain the legislative framework that is so critically important to us.  Help us build a strong union movement that can advance the social and economic circumstances or workers and create a province where there are no racial, gender or religious barriers to having a good, fairly paid job, and a financially secure retirement.

Thank you Sisters and Brothers.