Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

In a tough economy, jobs are a gift

Workers find it tough going in an employers' market

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MONTREAL -- After nearly a year of searching for a job close to home, welder Garnet Cooke is preparing to leave family behind and follow the trail blazed by many other unemployed Ontario workers who have headed west in search of a new life.

"I have been in this field for 35 years (and) I don't wish to take any more steps backwards," says the 54-year-old laid-off Electro-Motive worker.

Dave Clark said he's gone through various stages of grief since he, too, lost his job at the London, Ont., locomotive plant after 18 years.

"There's some really bad news out there. People are splitting, families are breaking apart, some people are filing for bankruptcy already. It's tough."

Both men say they are examples of the struggles many Canadian workers have faced during the past year as employers try to squeeze out costs in a weak economy.

Though the creation of Canada's largest private-sector union is intended to strengthen the position of labour in 2013, observers -- including union officials -- say it will still be a challenging year, given economic conditions.

Cooke said his life has been turned upside down since U.S. heavy-equipment giant Caterpillar Inc. closed the Electro-Motive plant early this year. It relocated to Indiana after workers refused to accept a 55 per cent cut in wages and benefits.

He's gone from earning nearly $35 an hour to living on $850 every two weeks from employment insurance.

"If it wasn't for the fact that I had my next older brother move in with me to help alleviate some of the bills and the stress of having to pay full rent, I don't know what I would be doing right now," he said.

Workers received $1,500 parting cheques and severances ranging from $13,000 for those with three years' service to $148,000 for employees with 30 years on the job.

As an older worker, Cooke says he sees few job opportunities, as companies prefer younger workers willing to take deep wage discounts.

So Cooke is working on his red seal -- an interprovincial stamp on his welding certificate -- and plans to head to the oilsands in Fort McMurray, Alta. From there, he's willing to criss-cross the country back to his birthplace in Nova Scotia if he can secure a job with Irving Shipbuilding, which won a huge government contract.

Clark said his anger has turned to hope as the former General Motors employee awaits for his name to be called from a preferential hire list that will give second chances for work in Oshawa, Ont., to about 145 of Electro-Motive's 481 laid-off workers. GM sold Electro-Motive in 2005.

"I'm very fortunate, very blessed to have that, but in the meantime, I have to survive until March, April to get my call," the 49-year-old father of three said.

The head of the Canadian Auto Workers union said Electro-Motive is a painful example of the labour climate in Canada, where companies feel emboldened to seek deep cuts in wages and benefits -- some earned through decades of negotiations.

"They have a confidence level that I've not seen in my 35 to 40 years," Ken Lewenza said from Toronto.

"Today in manufacturing, for example, holding your own is a victory, because the corporations have so many demands against the union it's almost unconscionable."

In addition to cutting wages and benefits, companies are routinely trying to move workers from costly defined-benefit pensions, which guarantee payments in retirement, and are imposing two-tiered models where new hires earn less and have to contribute more toward their pensions.

The CAW was able to secure new collective agreements this year for Canadian employees of the Detroit's Big Three automakers.

But the union had to agree to a two-tier wage system, including a 10-year progression to full pay and a hybrid pension plan for new employees. The automakers wanted to see new hires permanently earn less than current employees.

Lewenza hopes next year's formation of Canada's largest private-sector union, through the merger of the CAW and the Communication, Energy and Paperworkers union, will strengthen the voice of workers to fight political changes that affect their lives.

"It gives us the tools to be more active politically."

Still, Lewenza doesn't anticipate the pressure letting up in 2013 as long the as economy remains under stress.

The still-unnamed super union will hold its founding-day convention on Labour Day weekend 2013, where it will approve the union's constitution, name and logo, and elect its first leaders.

While private-sector workers are feeling the effects of the economy and globalization, they and public-sector workers face federal and provincial governments willing to intervene in labour disputes.

Queen's University labour expert George Smith said 2012 was a tumultuous year for labour relations in Canada, partly because of the "unprecedented" intervention of the federal government.

"I think it's fair to say that unions and unionized employees, particularly in the public sector, feel they are under siege," he said.

If labour relations swing at times to favour one side or the other, the current environment has definitely moved in favour of management, Smith added.

In the private sector, Carleton University's Ian Lee said workers are going to face ever growing pressure because of globalization, a strong loonie, a slow-growing economy and competition from right-to-work U.S. states.

The Sprott School of Business professor said he's hearing more people talking openly about being thankful to have a job, which suggests that ordinary Canadians realize there's a new normal about worker compensation.

"I think it's a year of transition and we're moving into a world where it's more competitive, and the impact of globalization is becoming more obvious to workers."

 

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 24, 2012 B9

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