Thursday July 3, 2003

On June 9th, union organizers with UNITE, the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, were assaulted by a gang of company thugs while leafleting outside a Mississauga manufacturing plant. Organizer Cory Mitic suffered a fractured arm, while two female UNITE organizers were also grabbed and pushed.

UNITE launched a drive at Matrix Packaging after workers contacted contacted the union to help them organize because of poor working conditions at three Toronto area plants. The company has committed numerous unfair labour practices in opposing the union drive. Employees have been subjected to surveillance, retaliation, discipline, firings and interrogation. Some have also reported obscene phone calls and threats of violence.

At a rally held outside Credit Valley Hospital where Mitic was treated, union leaders made it clear they hold the Conservative government responsible for weakening labour laws so badly that employers in Ontario feel free violate the labour laws in order to deny workers their legal rights. Before 1998, this kind of intimidation would have resulted in automatic certification of the company. The Labour Relations Board had the power to do that if it found that management had "poisoned the workplace environment to the extent that it was no longer possible to determine the true wishes of the employees".

But that section was removed after a Wal-Mart store was certified in Windsor, and the corporation went straight to the Premier's office to have the "union problem" taken care of. Not long after, the owners of Baron Metals hired street gang members who threatened to kill employees if they supported the union. All the OLRB could do was order a new vote, which could never overcome the fear spread amongst the employees. Even before that, the Tories had already removed the requirement for the OLRB to schedule immediate hearings around unfair labour practices during organizing, and its power to order immediate reinstatement of employees fired in relation to organizing. The change to voting instead of a card based system has created a five day reign of terror in most workplaces as management pressures every individual worker to vote against the union.

The result of these very conscious decisions to undermine fairness in the workplace is quite stunning. Since 1994, the number of new workers organized in Ontario has dropped by 57% - from 32,116 down to 13,708. It is estimated that we needed to add some 30,000 union members every year to maintain union density in the face of lay-offs, restructuring and new workplaces. As fewer workers are able to exercise their right to join a union, our strength is diminished and ability to set good standards for wages and benefits becomes more limited.

Individual unions have tried to adopt strategies to counteract this growing use of intimidation against the right of workers to join a union. However, this is clearly an issue for the entire labour movement. Breakthroughs in organizing have only occurred with massive sector-wide or community based campaigns to which tremendous resources have been dedicated. The Ontario Federation of Labour will be focussing on this issue at its fall convention, and we need to develop concrete plans for the Toronto region.

The Executive Board recommends that the Labour Council:

1) Work with UNITE and other unions to build a high profile campaign around changes to labour law that would restore automatic certification and expedited hearings for unfair labour practices during organizing drives
2) Add this issue to the Labour Council's key "Fire Ernie" messages before the provincial election
3) Sponsor a forum early in 2004 around organizing the unorganized