During the week of July 15 to 19 the IFPTE held its 57th tri-annual Convention, at the LVH hotel in Las Vegas.
Together with other TEAM delegates Ian Campbell, John Cameron, and Mike Taylor, and outgoing IFPTE Vice-President Misty Hughes Newman, I spent a very interesting week talking to delegates and guests from Canada and the USA, learning about current labour issues, participating in plenary session debate, and witnessing some of the contradictory economic messages evident in the City of Las Vegas (our hotel was in bankruptcy, as were many local citizens). We all agreed the experience was eye opening and educational.
The theme of the convention was "Solidarity", and the speakers and members I heard all amplified the same conclusion: the union movement succeeds or fails based on the degree that we stand together or allow ourselves to be divided.
I was impressed by the diversity of the IFPTE membership, with union brothers and sisters from across Canada and the USA, representing occupations as diverse as Administrative Law Judges, NASA scientists, Nuclear engineers, and Professional Accountants and Toll-Collectors. The two Manitoba delegations were ours, from TEAM Local 161, and from WAPSO Local 162, the City of Winnipeg engineers and managers.
Some of the success stories came from unexpected places. The young Indo-American union oranizer, Bhairavi Desai told the story of her involvement with the Yellow Taxi drivers in New York City. Under a new leasing system imposed by management, they had been forced to become private contractors rather than employees, with a major loss of pay and benefits. After a long struggle, Desai helped the drivers organise a new union, which went on to win a 17% raise in fares, with 100% of the raise going to the drivers.
Boeing test-pilots in Seattle similarly succeeded in ending a contracting-out tactic by the company, winning recent recognition as SPEA-IFPTE union members. We heard several stories about successful organizing drives and resolution of bargaining disputes.
USA Labour Secretary Hilda Solis addressed the convention by video, noting that her administration recognises and deplores the present attack on Labour in the USA. She said that the health of the Labour movement is essential to the national economy. Solis's head Solicitor for the Department of Labour, Patricia Smith, addressed the convention in person, explaining current initiatives of the Department in ensuring labour law compliance. She said her first priority is defending the most vulnerable workers. Many companies are exploiting current economic problems by paying below-minimum wages and flouting other labour laws. She also said that new legislation which would require employers to publicly report when they hire anti-union organizers is being blocked in Congress.
IFPTE President Greg Juneman introduced a video about the superiority of the Canadian medical system over that of the USA, and the misrepresentation of the Canadian system in USA media. The presentation had many facts which shocked me. For example, in 2010 over 900,000 Americans declared bankruptcy because of medical bills, while the corresponding Canadian figure was zero. Fify-one million Americans have no health care insurance, and 115 million go without care to avoid bills. Juneman implored USA delegates to abandon their prejudices and work toward creating a single payer system, like that in Canada.
Richard Trumka, President of the AFL-CIO, discussed the current rebuilding of organized labour in the USA. He stressed that the effort is entirely member driven, and not top-down. He observed that workers are increasingly discovering that hard work and productivity alone do not result in better wages or benefits - that is the reason for new interest in organising. He criticized the current attack on public sector and other unionized workers who have negotiated decent pension benefits and said every person needs a pension, and we need to work together to improve pensions for those who don't have them, not pull down those who do. He concluded by saying that the right to bargain collectively is as important as the right to vote, and the best protection any person can have as a member of the middle class is a union card.
On the last day of the convention, Ken Giorgetti, President of the Canadian labour Congress spoke about trends in Canadian labour. He started by attacking the notion that unionism is about greed. It is exactly the opposite – the goal of unionism is to make life better for everybody. He said unions must work harder to correct mistaken public perceptions. He warned about the effect of Bill 377 which singles out Canadian unions for onerous new tax reporting regulations, and which if enacted will weaken unions while maintaining the donor secrecy of the tax exempt organizations which oppose unions. Like Trumka, Giorgetti commented that "the best protection you can ever have on a job is a union card". As an anecdote, he said that in earlier years he had been a mine worker, and found his boss vociferous in his opposition to unions. Years later he met his former boss in a social situation, and was surprised to hear him say he had encouraged his son to join a union. Giorgetti asked why he had fought so hard against the union, and his boss said "it's my job".
There are a hundreds of other anecdotes about the convention I could mention, but one stands out. With the economic problems of North America and Europe, there has been much discussion about a need for austerity. We had a cold reminder about the human cost of such action. Local 195 public workers in New Jersey, who are toll collectors and have some of the lowest wages among IFPTE members, have been the target of pay cuts. One member, Patrick Kelly, a divorced father with three children, found the stress of the cuts combined with his personal problems to be overwhelming. Faced with mounting financial problems exacerbated by his $8000 pay cut, the second such cut in two years, he killed himself on July 16th. As delegates, we took up a collection for the children, with every member contributing generously, but this thought will haunt me in my memory of the convention.
On behalf of the TEAM delegates
TEAM-IFPTE Local 161
204-984-9470 or 1-877-984-9470