Eroding union base bad for business in BC

Whether the current economic turmoil is a recession or a full-blown depression, it is forcing a dramatic and permanent restructuring, not only of the BC workforce but also the province’s unions.
This may sound like good news to business, but it underlines a profound challenge to the province’s prospects for renewed prosperity.
Consider the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union, apparently well-placed to ride out the storm, with its membership diversified in the forest sector, oil refining, telecommunications and the mass media.
In the last two years, CEP has seen it’s 15,000-strong BC section shrink by about one-third, with two pulp mills closed, eight saw mills shut down and two more pulp mills on indefinite shutdown at Elk Falls and Crofton.
Those losses effectively eliminated 1,000 pulp mill jobs through closure, another 1,000 where pulp mills are reducing production, and 600 to 700 sawmill jobs. Another 600 to 700 pulp workers are on indefinite layoff at Catalyst mills at Elk Falls and Crofton.
CEP’s refinery workers, a relatively small share of the BC membership, may be safe for now, but carbon taxes and the eventual exhaustion of natural gas reserves don’t offer much prospect for growth.
Telecommunications is now truly global. That Telus call centre worker may be in Burnaby, but could is equally likely to be sitting in Manila. Their wages, modest as they are, aren’t being spent at Metrotown.
Even the mass media are in crisis. CEP Local 2000, the union’s largest in the province, represents Canwest workers at Pacific Press and Global TV. Can both of Vancouver’s dailies and the large Global team survive the Canwest debt crisis and the challenge of the internet?
It’s little better for the United Steelworkers, who now represent the remaining members of the once-mighty IWA-Canada. Like CEP, Steel has seen its forest and manufacturing jobs vaporizing.
Even in retail, where the United Food and Commercial Workers boasts some of the best collective agreements in food sales in North America, average wages are low. Retailers are aggressively expanding their non-union and big box banners, reducing employment and wages. Membership is not growing.
Most of these jobs are never coming back. If capital investment ever does resume in the pulp sector, we’ll see highly automated plants, like those already in production elsewhere, that do the work of 1,200 BC workers with a crew of 70.
What kind of future does that offer BC’s hinterland communities?
These highly-paid, skilled workers earned the salaries that fuelled small business across the province. Their elimination signals an acceleration of the trend to a low-wage, low skill economy that produces great scenery but little else.
In a province with already-extreme income inequality and unacceptable levels of child poverty, that’s bad news.
These dramatic changes don’t mean the end of the labour movement. Public sector unions like CUPE, the BC Nurses’ Union and the BC Teachers’ Federation retain their bargaining table leverage.
But the private sector unions, including the beleaguered Building Trades, where temporary foreign workers have been thrown into the mix, have little to show for the boom years. They now face permanent changes to the industries that formed their base.
Those changes aren’t limited to unionized workers.
The latest BC job numbers show construction taking a beating, but serious losses as well in the professional, scientific and technical sectors, where 5,000 jobs were lost in February.
Never mind the union movement – history shows that workers generally get unions if they want them, even if it takes a long and difficult struggle.
But where are the new jobs coming from? The skilled, well-paid and stable jobs that build communities and a modern economy? Without them, BC’s downturn could last a very long time.
March 31- April 6, 2009