Canadian Politics (Provincial), Labour, Municipal Politics, Published Articles

Catholic Board stands by its right to ‘preferential hiring’

Originally published in the Medicine Hat News

The Medicine Hat Catholic Board of Education stands by its right to “preferential hiring,” says chair Dick Mastel.

Last week, Education Minister David Eggen requested the province’s 17 Catholic school boards submit their employment contracts to the ministry for review over a controversial “Catholic lifestyle” clause, which the minister says could be used to discriminate against LGBTQ employees.

In an interview with the News, Mastel confirmed the MHCBE has this clause in its contract, as is the case for Catholic schools province-wide, but emphasized that the board is co-operating fully with Eggen’s request.

“As trustees, we have a fiduciary responsibility to our administrators to provide a safe and caring workplace. The notion that’s around that our schools are unsafe is distressing to us,” he said.

However, he said there’s no conflict between this obligation and the board’s ability to select teachers who share the church’s values.

“We in no way waive our rights to preferential hiring and for employing teachers in a Catholic school that model our faith,” said Mastel. “We have an obligation to be different from our public neighbours. If we don’t, we can’t really consider ourselves to be Catholic schools.”

He said the board takes a “pastoral approach” in cases where staff aren’t living up to Catholic teachings.

“We speak with the teachers involved and we ask them to get right with the church or there could be job action,” Mastel said. “That’s just part of who we are.”

The chair said there was an employment issue related to this clause “some years ago,” but couldn’t disclose specifics.

“Teachers willingly choose to apply to us, to be employed by the Catholic board and to know what the teachings of the church are,” said Mastel. “Why would you apply to a Catholic board if you’re not going to abide by Catholic values? It sounds silly.”

The Alberta Teachers’ Association, which represents teachers and administrators in all the province’s public, francophone and Catholic school boards, said in a statement that Catholic schools should refrain from potentially discriminatory hiring practices.

The ATA isn’t involved in the hiring process and is unable to nullify contracts its employees have signed, but can assist teachers if the terms of their contract are enforced in a discriminatory manner.

“We do advise teachers that they must be mindful of the terms of employment that they agree to when accepting a contract of employment, however if a school board ever used these clauses to justify discriminatory practices or to disregard human rights, we would vigorously assist, defend and protect the teachers involved to the greatest extent possible,” said spokesperson Jonathan Teghtmeyer.

Canadian Politics (Federal), Environment, Global Affairs, Labour

What’s the deal with CETA?

Belgium has agreed to support the European Union’s Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with Canada, removing a major roadblock to the contentious deal’s implementation. The deal, however, must still be approved by the 27 other EU governments, who may raise objections to its entrenchment of corporate power over the state.

Last Friday, Canadian International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland angrily stormed out of a meeting with her Belgian counterparts, as the agreement appeared to have collapsed under Walloon dissent, the product of an increasingly global anti-trade sentiment.

Belgium is essentially split in two – a Dutch-speaking Flemish region, Flanders, in the north and French-speaking Wallonia in the south. (There’s also a small German-speaking region in the east.) Flanders and Wallonia must both consent to the deal in order for it to move forward. Today the Walloon government, no doubt under immense pressure from the rest of the EU, agreed to support CETA.

Once the deal is signed, which is expected to occur on Sunday, the European parliament and its constituent nations must ratify it, which could take between two and four years.

So what is CETA? Why was Wallonia opposed and why are Canada and Europe so adamant about its passage?

CETA defined

Like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) did with Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, CETA seeks to reduce trade barriers between Canada and the EU. In other words, it would make it easier for Canadian and European businesses to trade with each other by reducing tariffs on foreign goods, which are designed to put domestic industries at an advantage.

“CETA covers all aspects of our broad trading relationship with the EU, including goods, services, investment, government procurement and regulatory cooperation,” according to Global Affairs Canada, so it is very far-reaching, providing Canada with access to a $20-trillion market.

Overall, the Canadian government says 98 per cent of tariffs on goods traded between Canada and Europe will be eliminated.

It will make it easier for Canada to sell maple syrup to Europe, for example, by eliminating the 8 per cent tariff imposed on that product, while making it easier for Germany, Canada’s second-biggest trade partner and largest economy in the bloc, to sell their cars to Canadians by eliminating Canada’s 6.1 per cent tariff on European-made cars.

The question is how will this effect auto manufacturers in Oshawa and Windsor when the Canadian market is flooded with less expensive German cars? There are anti-dumping rules as part of the agreement that created the World Trade Organization, which is still in effect, meaning Germany, in this case, cannot sell its cars below market value. But as the wealthier and more populous nation, Germany has an inherent competitive advantage, able to produce more cars cheaper than Ontario’s struggling auto sector.

The Canadian government’s summary of the pact has vague provisions near the end about “seeking high levels of labour protection” and “commitments to foster environmental governments,” but does not elaborate significantly on how they’ll be achieved.

The U.S. is in the process of negotiating its own CETA-style deal with the EU, known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). There’s also the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which would similarly reduce trade barriers between its signatories, including the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico and Japan.

Interestingly, the United Kingdom, which voted to leave the EU earlier this year, is part of CETA, as negotiations began prior to the Brexit vote.

CETA can be read in full here.

What does Wallonia have against CETA?

Most controversial, and where it departs most significantly from past trade agreements, is the deal’s investor state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanism, whereby companies are empowered to sue governments for reducing their profits, which critics say will reduce governments’ ability to impose regulation and was the linchpin of Wallonia’s rejection.

As a condition for Wallonia’s approval, an adjustment was made to have the European Court of Justice approve any ISDS application, which still doesn’t address the issue of shifting power away from elected representatives, for all their flaws, to unelected corporations. It just uses the unelected European judiciary as a middleman.

The problem with this aspect of CETA, writes copyright lawyer Michael Geist, is that the deal has extended its reach by forcing “changes to domestic regulations and the creation of dispute settlement mechanisms that may prioritize corporate concerns over local rules.”

Wallonia has been hit hard by unemployment – 11 per cent, which according to the Financial Times is nearly double that in neighbouring Flanders – so there is little appetite for giving multinational corporations more power to move away.

This is why the Walloons also demanded the ability to re-establish tariffs if a specific agricultural market will be negatively impacted by the deal. They have one year after signing the deal to determine which markets these are.

Walloon Prime Minister Paul Magnette, a social democrat, is now reportedly “extremely happy” with CETA.

Why are the Canadian and European governments so eager?

According to the Globe and Mail, Freeland called CETA “the most progressive trade deal negotiated,” which may not be saying much. While the deal certainly pays lip service to environmental and socioeconomic sustainability, there is little in terms of enforcement.

The same article cites a joint Canadian-EU study from 2011 that says CETA “would boost Canada’s income by up to $12 billion a year,” which “is the equivalent of adding an average of $1,000 to Canadian household incomes,” yet it doesn’t indicate how this wealth will be distributed.

European President Jean-Claude Juncker echoed Freeland when he called the pact “the best and most-progressive agreement we have ever, as a European Union, negotiated,” emphasizing its “new approach to investment that is transparent and … impartial.”

The Globe concedes the agreement is “a mixed bag for Canadian consumers,” with cheaper cars and cheese, “which could take a bite out of the market shares of dairy in Ontario and Quebec,” and more expensive drugs for the average Canadian, due to a two-year extension on European pharmaceutical patents.

Canadian and European leaders are eager to pass CETA because, to put it simply, it’s good for business.  This is precisely why the Canada Business Council, along with its European counterpart, demanded the “swift approval and implementation of CETA to boost trade and investment and create jobs.”

As a result of this rapidity, “The announcement of the completion of CETA was … the first time people in Canada and Europe were allowed to see the official text of the agreement,” reads a statement from the left-leaning Council of Canadians. “The deal was signed without any public consultation.”

In other words, this purportedly transparent deal was negotiated above Canadians’ and Europeans’ heads, primarily to benefit big business. The negotiators will no doubt take credit if some jobs trickle down to the working class.

Labour, Published Articles

Can unions help Vice stay virtuous?

Jeremy Appel
Originally published in the Monitor (Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives) 

At least ostensibly, Vice has been an unmitigated success story. What began as the independent Voice of Montreal magazine has expanded into a multinational media empire with documentaries, extensive web content, an award-winning HBO series and now a 24-hour news network, Viceland. More recently (and controversially), the PMO gave Vice News exclusive access to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s visit to Shoal Lake 40 First Nation, shutting out the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network.

Heritage Minister Melanie Joly praised Vice on CBC’s q, telling host Shad that the struggling public broadcaster could learn from Vice’s “risk taking” approach. Many viewers first became familiar with Vice through documentaries such as “Cannibal Warlords of Liberia” and “Ghosts of Aleppo,” where the network sent reporters into conflict zones to cover stories and assume risks that traditional broadcasters weren’t taking.

Perhaps nowhere is the vitality of Vice’s journalism more on display, in Canada at least, than the ongoing standoff between Vice News reporter Ben Makuch and the RCMP, who are demanding he hand over the transcripts of his interview with a suspected ISIS militant. Makuch has stood his ground, risking jail time, based on basic journalistic ethics, and to their credit Vice News has stood behind him fully. Forcing a journalist to reveal their sources to law enforcement, they reason, sets a frightening precedent.

At the same time, Vice is a lot like its competition—backed by large corporate donors and advertising. Viceland was set up with a $100-million investment from Rogers Media in Canada, and in the United States Vice is partially owned by the likes of Time Warner and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. Does this vast corporate sponsorship impact content? At a panel on the future of investigative television at Ryerson University in Toronto, Vice Canada’s head of content, Patrick McGuire, flatly denied it does.

“We’ve never done a deal that would give Rogers a final cut,” he said. “They don’t even own the content…. They don’t have anything to do with our editorial department. I’ve truthfully never had a story that’s been shut down or blocked.” McGuire did, however, concede that corporate sponsorship is a “tricky dance.”

Charles Davis, a former Vice freelancer who currently lives in Quito, Ecuador and writes for teleSUR, The Intercept, Al-Jazeera and other outlets, says the notion that Vice’s content is largely unaffected by corporate sponsorship is false.

“A broad range of prose style was allowable,” he says in praise of Vice’s editorial style. “I could write something serious then not so serious. And you can say things that you couldn’t necessarily say at other outlets, like ‘U.S. cops are killing people’ and ‘Israel is doing bad things.’”

On a large number of topics, then, Vice contributors appear to have more liberty in their reportage than they would at CNN, for instance. Davis claims he hit the limits of the Vice model while pursuing a story on the use of unpaid labour at the 2014 South By Southwest media conference in Austin, Texas.

“I was in Austin visiting some friends and I noticed in the newspaper that they were advertising for ‘volunteer professional photographers,’” he says. “That caught my interest because one of the first pieces I wrote for Vice that became a big hit was about unpaid labour in the so-called liberal media.”

Davis says that an earlier article on the exploitation of volunteer workers made him a sort of go-to-guy for unpaid labour issues, and the story about South by Southwest seemed an ideal fit. “It’s a for-profit conference that makes a lot of money, but it’s run on the ground by volunteers, people who they sucker in by saying ‘don’t you want to be a part of this artsy, cultural experience?’” he says. “They kind of play on the idea that if you want money for this, you’re being uncool.”

But the story hit a snag at the fact-checking stage, says Davis. “He (my editor) told me that the marketing department was not cool with this,” he recalls. “Vice was putting on a sideshow at South by Southwest where they were partnering with AT&T and Kendrick Lamar was there. The same unpaid workers I was complaining about were working at the Vice event.”

Davis says Vice’s marketing department put the kibosh on the story out of fear of alienating advertisers. “That was my first experience where it wasn’t an editorial decision,” he says, “but a decision imposed on the editor-in-chief by advertisers.” For the record, Vice’s New York office told Capital the story was killed for “editorial reasons that had nothing to do with AT&T.” But Davis says he experienced similar censorship three more times before being shown the door.

Another criticism of Vice is its advertorial style, whereby certain content is sponsored by advertisers but appears on the surface to be regular editorial content. Company logos were blurred on T-shirts worn in a documentary about the KKK, and in 2014 Vice made a promotional video for the video game Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare that featured an interview with an unsuspecting New York Times journalist, David Sanger, who was not told he would be appearing in an ad. While there is meant to be a fairly clear demarcation “between the marketing and advertising department and editorial,” Davis says, “at Vice, part of our 21st century hit media, that line isn’t just blurred but nonexistent.”

Vice is by no means unique in this regard. With the drying up of advertising revenues, many publications and networks are looking at less conventional ways to attract advertisers, including sponsored content. Politico, for instance, has come under criticism for its use of advertorial content in its daily “Playbook” newsletter, while Britain’s prestigious Guardian newspaper regularly runs “supported” content funded by private entities. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funds the Guardian’s global development section, for example.

This blurring of the line between advertising and news is one reason why the Canadian Media Guild (CMG) is in the process of trying to establish a union for Canadian Vice employees.

“We aren’t writing ads, we’re reporting on current events and people expect a certain non-biased viewpoint,” says Carmel Smyth, president of the CMG. “Sometimes things seem to cross that line and having a union gives workers a collective voice to negotiate with a company and to have some kind of journalistic standards in place…where it’s clear what’s journalism and what’s advertising.”

Smyth says the CMG’s unionization efforts are part of a broader trend in the global digital media atmosphere.

“We’re seeing that these online communications organizations are profitable,” she says. “Initially, when it wasn’t clear that these companies were going to be around for a long time, people were working for lower wages and happy to do that. Now that that isn’t the case, they want to have discussions about fairness— about living an earning wage, about overtime, about control or input into questions regarding journalistic integrity.”

That’s precisely what the Writers’ Guild of America–East (WGAE) accomplished with its successful drive to unionize U.S. Vice employees shortly after its unionization of Gawker. In addition to achieving a 29% raise for the 80 Vice employees they represent, WGAE has addressed many workers’ misgivings with advertorial content.

“We’ve inspired the company to issue an editorial policy statement that creates a wall between the business side and the editorial side,” says WGAE President Lowell Peterson. Thanks to the WGAE’s intervention employees cannot be compelled to work on advertorial (or “branded” in the contract’s wording) content if they don’t desire to.

“These were specific gains that people on the bargaining committee felt were important,” Peterson says. “Maybe partly because of its reputation, but also because people feel that for the long-term health of Vice, it’s important to reassure readers that this content is meaningful. Every digital outlet draws the line differently, but our sense is that Vice is drawing the line more carefully now.

“There are certainly a lot of digital companies that are less transparent about the monetization side than Vice,” says Peterson, adding there was no significant pushback from Vice management on unionization or the guild’s demands. The WGAE doesn’t represent workers on Viceland or the HBO documentary series, so policies could be quite different on that side.

Davis emphasizes that not all Vice content is affected by its advertorial model. “Vice News is insulated from some of the stuff I had to deal with,” he says. “That partly has to do with the fact that it’s a prestige project. It’s real journalism and so they don’t want to have the meddling there that may compromise that perception. It also doesn’t get as much traffic as, which is their big advertising platform.”

Vice continues to prove its place in the world of so-called serious journalism through its willingness to challenge powerful interests and stand up for journalistic integrity, as the Makuch affair demonstrates. On the other hand, its reputation is greatly diminished when stories are cancelled or altered to impress advertisers and promote branded content.

Requests for comment on this article from Vice’s director of communications, Jake Goldman, went unanswered. Goldman told the Washington Post in March that criticism of Vice’s alleged coziness with advertisers is based on “old or inaccurate (information with) absolutely no bearing on how we operate today.” He declined the Post’s request to elaborate.

Labour, Published Articles, Toronto Politics

CUPE inside workers ink tentative deal with City of Toronto, avoid strike

Jeremy Appel
Originally published at Humber News Online

Toronto’s city workers represented by Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 79 reached an agreement Thursday morning with the municipal government, avoiding a strike or lockout.

The union leadership agreed to a four-year contract for their 20,000 inside workers who staff community, child care and fitness centres, along with ice rinks and indoor pools operated by the city.

Local 79 President Tim Maguire was evasive regarding the deal’s contents.

“It was a tough round of negotiations. We moved forward on some issues and were able to push back on deep concessions,” Maguire said in a mid-morning news conference.

“I’m not going to get into the particulars of the deals…that will be recommended to the members,” he repeatedly told reporters.

Maguire credited the union’s work-to-rule campaign for laying the groundwork for the agreement, but again would not get into specifics.

“We’ve had some tough-slogging negotiations over the past two weeks,” he said, decrying the city’s “aggressive approach” to collective bargaining.

“While this was a very difficult round of negotiations, we believe we have secured the best possible collective agreements for our members, ensuring they will continue to be able to deliver the great services Toronto residents depend on,” Maguire said in an early morning statement.

Details publicly posted by mayor’s office

Mayor John Tory posted the city’s “final offer” online Sunday, a move characterized by Maguire as “disrespectful.”

The publicly released offer included a five per cent increase in base pay throughout the next four years and a decrease in the amount of benefits for workers on long-term disability, to 70 per cent from 75 per cent.

Another provision guarantees that no full-time employee with 15 years of seniority as of Dec. 31, 2019 can lose his or her job as a result of contracting out or privatization.

Coun. Joe Mihevc (Ward 21, St. Paul’s West) said it’s common for details to be leaked during the collective bargaining process, whether it’s by the union or employer.

“Negotiation is a combination of dialogue, garnering public support for your position (and) applying external pressure,” Mihevc told Humber News. “It’s a mucky process.”

“Sometimes I have seen the union publish what they’ve got on the table and sometimes I’ve seen management do it,” he continued. “It’s nothing I haven’t seen before, especially if it’s highly contentious.”

Councillors do not get briefed on the agreement’s specific details until it’s put for a vote in city council, Mihevc added.

Precarious employment is the issue: labour leader

John Cartwright, president of the Toronto and York Region Labour Council, said it’s important to look at the agreement in the context of the precarious employment situation for so many workers, including those employed by the city.

“Although people think of city work and city jobs as stable and secure, in fact nearly half of CUPE Local 79 members are working in temporary or part-time positions, many without any benefits, many with scheduling issues that make it difficult for them to have a second job,” Cartwright told Humber News.

“I’m sure there was some work done on those key issues.”

The union had been without a contract since the beginning of this year.

The city had already reached an agreement with CUPE Local 416, representing the city’s 5,400 outdoor workers, which was unanimously approved by council Monday.

Canadian Politics (Provincial), Labour, Published Articles

Farm worker rights in Alberta

Jeremy Appel
Originally published in the Monitor (Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives) 

Alberta’s NDP government has encountered fierce opposition to its efforts to extend basic workplace safety and labour regulations to the province’s farms and ranches. Prior to the introduction Bill 6, the Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act, Alberta was the only province where farms were not bound by mandatory occupational health and safety standards. As of January 1, Alberta’s farmers now have the right to refuse unsafe work, receive overtime pay, apply for workers’ compensation in case of injury, and unionize.

The bill, passed by the NDP majority in Alberta’s parliament on December 10, amends four pieces of previous legislation—the Employment Standards Code, Labour Relations Code, Occupational Health and Safety Act, and Workers’ Compensation Regulation—to bring farm workers under the same regulatory regime as other workers. Each of these laws had exemptions for farmers and ranchers. Bill 6 repeals these provisions, applying labour and safety regulations across the board.

The changes were spurred by the death, last October, of three girls on a farm in the Central Alberta hamlet of Withrow. The three sisters, aged 11 to 13, suffocated under a truckload of canola they were playing in. Alberta’s agriculture minister, Oneil Carlier, responded by calling for measures to enhance farm safety with the stated goal of protecting rural children. In late January, Carlier announced the creation of six working groups, made up of a dozen people each, who were to begin developing a rollout plan for Bill 6 at the end of February.

“Years of promises made and promises broken by Conservative premiers is enough,” wrote Alberta Federation of Labour President Gil McGowan in November. “Agricultural workers can now expect a minimum wage. Hazards in the workplace will have to be labelled. Workers will have the right to refuse unsafe work without penalty…. In the event that someone dies at work, there will be an investigation.”

Opposition critics and some agricultural associations, on the other hand, challenged the government as trying to impose unnecessary labour laws under the guise of protecting public safety. The legislation also stoked outrage from family farmers who felt their bucolic work methods were being trampled on by a social democratic government few of them voted for. Bill 6 “appeared to disregard the traditional community approach to farming in Alberta, in which family members are active on the farm and neighbours help neighbours with various tasks,” wrote Michael Hughes, a lawyer who advises employers on labour issues, in December.

As a direct response to this criticism, the government amended the bill to preserve family farming. “Alberta farm and ranch producers with paid employees who are not the owner or related to the owner will be affected by Bill 6,” reads a government statement. “This means that family members can continue to contribute to farming operations as they always have and neighbours can still volunteer to help each other out.”

Still, many are calling it a bad communications blunder for the government. Wildrose party leader Brian Jean, who as recently as March 2015 told CBC he supported new farm safety regulations, is using the opportunity to denounce the NDP as anti-democratic. Generally the right in Alberta is using dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of the bill to whip up wholesale opposition to the NDP’s policies—namely the carbon tax and a recently wrapped-up oil royalty review.

Though the Alberta Federation of Agriculture (AFA), which represents the province’s farmers, ranchers and other agricultural workers, supports the broader goal of enhancing farm safety, it, too, has reservations about the way the bill was rolled out.

“AFA’s position on Bill 6 is that while we welcome some of the changes in the proposed legislation, more consultation and communication are essential,” reads the organization’s website. “The quick implementation schedule and unclear communication about the scope of this legislation has meant a significant learning curve for farmers.”

Bob Barnetson, professor of labour studies at Athabasca University, staunchly supports the bill, which he says represents “a long overdue change that brings Alberta employment law for farm workers into the mainstream.” Barnetson atributes farmers’ opposition to the legislation as a desire to squeeze every bit of profit out of their employees.

“Farmers are no different from any other business owner,” he says. “They typically dislike the additional costs associated with paying workers living wages and offering them safe workplaces. They would rather externalize those costs onto the workers.”

Barneston points out small family farms are untouched by the legislation, but their plight is being used as a wedge issue by the two conservative opposition parties to mask their support for big agribusiness.

“Who’s really affected by Bill 6? There’s about 43,000 farm operations… in Alberta, but only about 13,000 of those have paid workers, so only about 30% of farms are affected by Bill 6, and those tend to be the biggest farms.”

Barnetson concedes the government failed to convince Albertans that the legislation is in the public’s interest. “Much of the opposition to this bill is frankly hysterically misinformed,” he says. “I would think if the NDP could do this again, they would adopt a different communications strategy…. Even the premier has publicly accepted that the communication was bad.”