David Robertson speech to CAW Unemployment Insurance Conference - April, 2003

April 4, 2003


Port Elgin, April 4, 2003
David Robertson, Director, Work Organization & Training Department

Thanks for the invitation to be with you tonight. I have to admit that I accepted with a certain amount of trepidation. Being asked to bring this group comments about UI is kind of like being asked to take engines to Windsor or nickel to Sudbury.

I understand that some of you may be new to UI issues but I know from just looking around the room, the depth of experience, the breadth of expertise and the level of commitment that is represented here. And I'm proud to be part of a union that can bring together such a group.

I think we could be arriving at a long awaited turning point: Despite the war, despite the crisis in too many of our workplaces, I think we could be at a turning point in politics, in ideology, in popular opinion and in the formation of government policy. In part, that is what I want to suggest tonight.

We could be at a turning point but if we are, it is an opening that will close unless we can quickly and firmly keep it open. And that's also what I want to talk about.

In so doing I'm going to cover four points:

  • I'm going to talk about how the UI system is broken.
  • I'm going to point to some of the policies that got us here.
  • I'm going to suggest why I think things could be different.
  • And I'm going to end with a limited program for change.

Part 1: UI is broken both Part 1 and Part 2

My first point is that UI is broken: Part 1 of EI because of unfair qualification requirements and inadequate benefits and Part 2 of EI because of arbitrary rules and inconsistent treatment.

A few examples:
When Daimler Chrysler announced it was terminating the third shift at the Brampton assembly plant we negotiated, over and above the improvements in severance, sub, pensions and benefits, an Adjustment program that was top drawer.

We got the resources to setup and staff an action centre, we bargained a major financial commitment from the company and we leveraged even more money from both levels of government.

Our laid off members had access to counselling, peer support, training courses and in a number of cases substantial funding under part 2 of EI for training and education.

On the other end of the spectrum is Navistar. The company is closing the plant, moving out of the country, running away from any responsibilities - and they can. They are able to do so. Our laid off members at Navistar are doubly hit: Once in losing their jobs and then again through the lack of the supports that should be available to them.

When you have a system that treats workers in the same situation quite differently because there are no requirements of companies - no rules for employers - then you know the system is broken.

Another example:
Sara, a union member, worked part time in a hotel and after 5 years at work took a maternity leave and collected benefits. She came back to work but had her hours reduced because of the downturn in tourism and then after 6 months got laid off. Under the new hours system Sara hasn't accumulated enough hours to re-qualify for benefits and is out on the street with nothing.

When you have a system of punitive rules and unfair eligibility requirements that penalizes part time workers then you know the system is broken.

When Canada 3000 went broke and our members lost their jobs we set up an adjustment program in Toronto. We got provincial government support and federal government support. We have an action center, staff and we have even made some breakthroughs in EI part 2 funding for an innovative and successful computer literacy course.

In contrast our members in Vancouver didn't get an action centre nor peer counselling nor courses. They didn't get any adjustment supports. In BC the provincial government was simply not interested in supporting an adjustment program for laid off Canada 3000 workers.

When you end up with a system of uneven supports, a provincial patchwork of commitments, little accountability and no national standards then you know the system is broken.

Some of the Canada 3000 members live in the same area as our members who were laid off from the DC Brampton plant. DC workers were laid off first and had access to programs that the Canada 3000 members were denied simply because of timing. When the Canada 3000 members got there, the HRDC budgets had dried up.

When you have a system that is plagued by fragmentation and hobbled by a decentralization gone wrong then you know the system is broken.

Our union has done remarkably well in the running skirmishes of EI cases, in negotitating money for adjustment, in getting workers the supports they need. Our EI reps, local leadership and our staff know how to represent our members. They know where to stretch the interpretations, find the loopholes and win the appeals.

We've even had some success in changing some of the rules. And along the way we have met with willing staff from HRDC who want to help our members. We also have a Worker's commissioner (who comes from the CAW) who keeps us in the know and helps us navigate through the system.

But all of that doesn't change the fact that the system is broken.

We could all talk about what is wrong --- from criticizing the 'Hours system' to pointing to complicated rules and inadequate benefits.

This has been a rough time for our members. The layoffs and closures are bad enough. But there is added insult and added injury. Workers are treated differently in similar situations of losing their jobs, workers are treated differently when they lose their jobs in different provinces, workers are treated different from one HRDC office to the next, workers are treated differently depending on when they get to the HRDC office.

And workers under EI part 1 are worse off now than they were ten years ago and twenty years ago.

The last figures I saw indicated that fewer than 38% of unemployed workers are now eligible for EI compared to 87% in the early 90's. In Ontario the coverage is even worse.

I was reminded the other day that since 1994 close to $50 billion dollars have been siphoned out of the EI fund and funnelled into the federal government's coffers. The federal government has ripped of EI by 50 billion dollars - much of it workers' money. It's hard to comprehend such huge sums. In fact if you were to count at a good pace (12345678910) and if you didn't sleep or do anything else it would take you ten years to count to one billion.

And that takes me to my second point.

EI is broken because it serves a different purpose than what it was intended. It is a different program than our predecessors in the labour movement fought to make it.

Part 2: The attack on Workers

Government policy has shifted from a commitment to develop the labour force in Canada to a campaign of labour market deregulation. Back in the late eighties the federal government announced a policy and set of programs around the concept of Labour Force Development. It marked a time of broad consultations on public policy, innovations in labour market programs, new structures that involved unions as labour market partners in influencing and even in setting government policy.

Our union played an important role in many of these initiatives. The initial consultations of the time were co chaired by Bob White. When the Canadian Labour Force Development Board was set up to influence and advise the government on UI and related issues Buzz Hargrove sat as a Labour director. In Ontario our union was represented on the Ontario Training Adjustment Board. We had other staff and leadership involved all across the country in provincial boards, local boards, sectoral training councils and so on.

But the brief time of 'Labour Force Development' was abruptly ended, the innovations were derailed, the structures shut down as the government began to steer a deliberate course to the right.

And workers have been hard hit since then. Our rights and entitlements have been eroded, our expectations have been diminished and our rewards have been limited.

For some time now and particularly since the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), codified the right wing's thinking in its 'Jobs Paper' of 1994 there has been an aggressive attempt by government to deregulate the labour market.

The campaign has included:

  • the gutting of UI,
  • the shift from welfare to workfare
  • privatizing and commercializing training adjustment and employment services,
  • deregulating labour standards and
  • weakening unions

What is amazing is the extent and the speed of the change. From the early 90's to the mid 90's:

  • Unions had gone from being courted as Labour market partners to being ostracized as special interest groups.
  • Workers went from being the critical resource in the new economy to non-core and non-value added assets that had to be cut and slashed.
  • Labour market programs went from being viewed as transitional income supports to being condemned as costly and overly generous programs which only served as disincentives that discouraged workers from taking whatever jobs were available.
  • Employment law was transformed from a set of very basic workplace protections to being seen as rigidities that get in the way of flexible workplaces and flexible labour markets.
  • And Labour law was redirected from building a culture of workplace cooperation to a campaign of weakening unions and keeping us out of the workplace.

This period is not over. In fact just a couple of weeks ago at our NEB meeting Buzz mentioned how the Ministry of Labour officials were canvassing the Big Three to assess their interest in forcing a 10 hour workday. (John Lang worked on the Toyota case with the ESA)

While it is not over, the grip of the right is weakening and governments of the Right are more vulnerable now than they have been in quite a while.

Part 3: Why things could be different.

I started by saying that I think we are at a time of openings. There are a number of indicators that can influence our thinking about what is possible.

First, as a labour movement we have shown considerable resilience in the face of anti-union governments and programs. As a union we have done even better. Our culture of resistance and our strategy of fighting back on the political front and at the bargaining table has meant our union has been growing. That isn't very often the case.

Unions across the globe have been hard hit. In some places the damage has been stunning. French unions have lost half their membership since the late 70's. In Britain unions lost 40% of their members and have seen their economic and political influence dwindle. In the US unions now represent only 13.9 % of the total workforce and only 9% in the private sector.

In Canada we have done better than in many jurisdictions. In 2002 union membership in Canada stood at 30.3% (peak was '92 at 33.2%). The private sector is 18%, double that of the U.S. That is one strong indicator of why things could be different. In Canada unions have shown staying power and a continued capacity to influence outcomes.

Second, one of the sticks we have been constantly beaten with is gone. The Deficit is no longer the justification for right wing programs. The argument that we can't do this and we can't have that because of the deficit has weakened considerably. At the federal level this is the 6th year of surpluses. According to our economist (Jim Stanford) in the time since the deficit was eliminated, fully 90 percent of the newly available resources have been dedicated to tax cuts and debt repayment and just 10% to spending initiatives. The debate now is not about resources but about how they are being spent. That's another indication of why things could be different.

Third, the glow of right wing ideology has faded, it's brightness has tarnished. Right wing analysis doesn't have the appeal it used to. Right wing prescriptions don't get the same level of popular support. And the right's scapegoats - lazy public sector workers, overpaid teachers, greedy workers, cheating welfare recipients and UI claimants - are no longer scapegoats.

Just think about Stephen Harper and the Alliance Party or Mario Dumont and the Action Democratique in Quebec. Look in Ontario - the lessons of deregulation at Walkerton, the lessons of privatization at Hydro, the lessons of tax cuts in health care and education. Those are all indications why things could be different.

Fourth, at least for the time being, there is economic growth, continued economic strength and some encouraging labour market indicators. I don't want to overstate this point but there has been a growth in jobs - 2 million new jobs in five years. And in the last couple of years most of them have been full time. There has also been a reduction in self-employment. Labour market strength can give workers the confidence to demand more. And the economy can afford major improvements in wages and in social programs.

All in all we are at the start of a different period. There are no guarantees. The constraints are strong and business is prepared. But there is a new vulnerability on the part of governments, growing distrust of corporations and a more open sense of change among the electorate.

Part 4: A limited Program

If indeed there are openings then we need to take advantage of them. I think part of that is shifting our thinking. We've been hunkered down for so long we could all use an 'attitude adjustment'. We need to move form a mentality of just hanging on to demanding something more and better; from a hope of achieving reform measured in teaspoons to something more dramatic and more substantive.

We need to demand more and we need to back our demands with more campaigns and more actions.

In terms of our discussions this weekend we have to reclaim UI and we have to shift government policy from labour market deregulation back to a strategy and a commitment to labour force development. Here are some starting points:

1. We need to fix EI

We've already had some victories. The federal government in the last few years have made some changes to EI. The government:

  • Dumped the frequent user penalties that hurt workers with yearly layoffs
  • Eliminated the super clawback of EI benefits ($39,000 taxable income)
  • Expanded parental benefits (a year of benefits for new mothers-some of which new fathers can use)
  • Allowed claimants to exclude low-earning weeks of under $150
  • Made EI worksharing benefits more flexible and
  • Reduced the EI waiting periods for the in-school portion of apprenticeships

Our union played an important role in achieving these reforms and I congratulate you on the briefs, the lobbying, the pressure and the actions that made it happen. But we need to do more to fix UI:

  • We need to win a change in the hours system by establishing a standard 360 hours to qualify
  • We need to restore benefit levels to 66% and,
  • We need to raise the maximum benefit which hasn't been increased in 7 years.

2. We need to Increase the minimum wage

Labour force development is not possible with poverty level wages. In Ontario 1 out of 4 workers makes less than $10 an hour. That's below the poverty line. Since 1995 the provincial conservative government has kept the minimum wage frozen at $6.85 ($6.40 for students and $5.95 for liquor servers). And these aren't student jobs. Three out of five minimum wage workers are adults. In addition those on 'Ontario works' live on benefits that were cut by close to 22% eight years ago and have been frozen ever since. (single parent 2 children under 12, $1086 a month)

Our union has endorsed The Living Wage campaign sponsored by the Ontario Coalition for Social Justice and has called on the minimum wage to be increased to $10 an hour and be indexed to inflation. As part of that campaign we have demanded that the shelter portion of Ontario works and the Ontario disability support program be increased to average rents and that benefits are protected against inflation.

3. We need a campaign around layoffs and closures

Worker adjustment programs shouldn't depend on the goodwill of employers, they shouldn't even depend on how successful unions are in bargaining. It should be a matter of workers having rights and employers having responsibilities. We need committed governments and obligated employers.

4. Finally, we need to make training and labour force development a national priority. We have to get back to where we were interrupted over a decade ago.