Occupational Health and Safety and NAFTA

May 12, 1998


Economic Globalization: Its Impact on Occupational Safety and Health

The Impact on the Work Force of the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement and NAFTA

Cathy Walker, Director, Health and Safety Department
Canadian Auto Workers
American Industrial Hygiene Association
Atlanta, Georgia May 12, 1998

Canada, Free Trade and NAFTA

Health and safety in Canada is both a provincial and a federal responsibility. The ten provinces and two territories as well as the federal government present a variety of political orientations from far right to somewhat social democratic. Health and safety practices in each jurisdiction vary according to the political perspective of the government of the day. Each, however, reflect the economic reality of capitalism and capitalism within the context of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Effective January 1, 1989 Canada agreed to a bilateral Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the United States which has long been Canada's principal trading partner. In 1994 the pact became NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) with Mexico added.

What is free trade? The idea is certainly not new. As early as 1852, the idea had been defined:

"By free trade they mean the unfettered movement of capital: freed from all political, national, and religious shackles.

There are, in short, not to be tolerated any political or social restrictions, regulations, or monopolies, unless they proceed from 'the eternal laws of political economy', that is, from the conditions under which capital produces and distributes.

... in which there remains altogether that minimum only of government which is indispensable for the administration, internally and externally, of the common class interest and business of the bourgeoisie; and where this minimum of government is as soberly, as economically organized as possible.

Competition abroad is constantly increasing - consequently cheapness must increase constantly also. Therefore, wages ... must keep constantly falling.

Karl Marx, New York Daily Tribune, August 25, 1852

Many Canadians saw the FTA as being a major infringement on Canadian sovereignty. Mass opposition grew up across the country with grass roots organizations coming together, composed of the labour movement, church groups, women's organizations, human rights groups, environmental groups and many other organizations which today fall under the general title of the "social justice" movement. Our concern was that Canadian social institutions, laws and practices (from medicare to labour laws to gun control) would be harmonized downwards to the inferior standards of the United States. We feared that leveling the playing field would in fact be a race for the bottom. Capital, on the other hand, vigorously promoted the free trade deal. Naturally, since the FTA was for them. The federal government had run on a platform opposing free trade but, like so many other governments, did the opposite once in power.

Concern over the FTA was no abstract matter. The increased power of capital through the FTA with the constant refrain about the need for increased competitiveness and threats about moving plants to the low wage and relatively union free Southern United States had a very detrimental effect on health and safety. The Ontario Workers' Compensation Board prepared these statistics for us on the incidence of repetitive strain injuries (RSIs) in the industries in which the CAW is the predominant union, auto, auto parts and aerospace. You can see the dramatic increase in the RSI rate beginning in 1989 as the effect of the lean and mean production methods driven by the FTA began to be seen in CAW workplaces.

NAFTA was seen as even more threatening to Canadian workers and the ordinary public and there was even more opposition. Even a 100,000 person demonstration in the federal capital, Ottawa, however, failed to prevent NAFTA from being signed.

A continent wide division of labour with the United States supplying the capital, Canada the natural resources and Mexico the labour power was seen to be threatening to the Canadian way of life. Low wage jobs in Mexico were seen to imperil the rather fragile (outside of the auto industry) Canadian manufacturing industry. Canadian social and cultural institutions and practices were seen as at risk. Labour and environmental laws and practices in Canada, in spite of NAFTA side deals, were seen as endangered. Solidarity among American, Mexican and Canadian workers, unions and progressive forces in general was seen to be an important goal to try to harmonize standards upwards but difficult to put into practice. Today, regrettably, all our fears, all our concerns about NAFTA have turned out to be founded.

Health and Safety Under Right Wing Attack

Health, safety and environmental laws and their enforcement as well as the workers' compensation system are all under attack. Using the mantras of "globalization" and "competitiveness" in the context of NAFTA, business leaders cite the need to deregulate and privatize Canadian institutions. Harmonization with the United States is promoted as a goal; jobs going to Mexico are used as a threat.

In Canada, health and safety laws are built around three worker rights:

  • the right to participate in joint management-worker health and safety committees; and
  • the right to know about workplace hazards which requires consultation with the joint committee about the education and training programs;
  • the right to refuse hazardous work.

In the context of the NAFTA, Canadian health and safety activists have been concerned that employers and governments will want to harmonize downwards to U.S. standards in these areas where committees are not mandatory and thus not mandated to be consulted in the development of training programs for the right to know. The right to refuse as well is not guaranteed by statute in the United States.

These three worker health and safety rights are under attack throughout Canada. I will focus on the attacks in Ontario since it is the most populated province and is the industrial engine of the country. In June 1995 the right wing Conservative Government in Ontario was elected with Premier Mike Harris as leader. It replaced the social democratic government of the New Democratic Party which had moved to the right during its first term of office. Building on the debt and deficit obsession which had been used as the excuse by the previous government for cutting back social programs, Harris went to work with a vengeance.

Harris has engaged in concerted attacks on the labour movement, the poor and the disadvantaged. Anti-scab legislation was repealed soon after the change in government. Welfare was cut by $200 per month. Health care cuts have been considerable with hospitals closing and health care workers laid off. Education budgets have been slashed. Day care budgets and special transportation for people with disabilities have been cut. All government ministries have seen their budgets slashed and public sector workers laid off. The list goes on and on. The excuse continues to be the debt and the deficit need to be addressed but meanwhile tax cuts for the rich continue and will be accelerated.

Within two months of its election, the government proposed budget cutbacks to the Ministry of Labour (which governs health and safety) of fifty percent. When the document was leaked to us we circulated it among our membership, in the communities and to the media. Early in its term, with a new and inexperienced Minister, the government denied the proposal. We focused on proposed cutbacks to health and safety contained in the document. It said 20% of health and safety inspectors would be laid off as well as all ergonomists and half or more of technical staff including industrial hygienists, engineers, occupational health physicians and nurses.

The leadership of the Workplace Health and Safety Agency was fired. This organization is responsible for health and safety training in the province as well as being the conduit for some $47 million from the Workers' Compensation Board to various health and safety organizations. Its leadership was bi-partite but there was no role for labour to play in the new regime. The choice of the training organization (there were a half dozen, one run by the labour movement) was now the decision of the employer while before if the joint health and safety committee could not agree on one training organization for both parties, the worker representative was free to go to the training organization of his/her choice with the employer still required to pay. You can see that these are as much ideological questions, questions of power, of management's rights, than they are economic questions.

Some health and safety training courses which were under development were cut off in mid stream with about 40 workers employed by the labour run Workers Health and Safety Centre laid off. The four Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers were targeted for elimination. The Occupational Disease Panel which had been a body investigating links between occupation and disease for the purpose of recommending scheduling them as diseases in the Workers' Compensation Act was also proposed to be cut.

Gutting the Workers' Compensation Act was an important priority to which the Premier assigned a Minister Without Portfolio whose task it was to investigate how deep the cuts should go. The Minister's final report recommended many benefit and entitlement cuts including eliminating entitlement to stress claims. The most insidious, however, was the proposal to give control of a worker's claim to the employer for the first six weeks with the employer allowed to, in turn, contract with a private insurance company to provide the coverage. This would have begun the dismantling of the workers' compensation system as we know it. In all Canadian provinces and territories it has been a public system for the past eighty years. No private insurance has been allowed.

Employer Agenda

The provincial government did not dream up these initiatives by themselves, of course. Throughout, we have been receiving leaked documents of minutes of meetings of employer lobby groups, internal memos, etc. that show us very clearly what the employers are seeking. Reduced health and safety enforcement from a weakened Ministry of Labour is the hope of every business whether a flagrant violator of health and safety laws or from a business that alleges it already complies with and exceeds the requirements of the law and thus needs no government inspector looking over its shoulder. Gutting the workers' compensation system for which the employers pay 100 per cent of the cost, has been an important employer priority. Erosion of the three worker health and safety rights is central to employer demands of the government. They have already been partially successful in eroding the right to know by eroding the health and safety training system. They are seeking to make mandatory joint health and safety committees optional. But it is the right to refuse which is most under attack.

The right to refuse work which is likely to endanger a worker is one of the most important rights guaranteed under the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act. It has been used to good effect in unionized workplaces, especially in the auto assembly plants where production speed-up has resulted in an increasing incidence of repetitive strain and other injuries and where workers have fought back by exercising their right to refuse. General Motors and Ford have been particularly strident in their opposition to workers using this right with many grievances fought over suspensions (which are illegal) at GM as well as arguments with Ford when they have sent the rest of the line home when a worker has exercised his/her right to refuse. Not surprisingly Ford and GM have been the main lobbyists for eroding the right to refuse in the statute.

Since Ford and GM were the major lobbyists for cutbacks to the right to refuse, we made enshrining the present health and safety act and regulations in our collective agreement a major priority of our bargaining with the Big 3 automobile manufacturers during our 1996 bargaining. Chrysler agreed to write the provision in their agreement with us and GM did the same after a three week strike (though the main strike issue was outsourcing, not the right to refuse). Ford chose to make the right to refuse a major focus of their bargaining as did we in return. In the end the corporation capitulated without a strike. By enshrining these provisions in our contracts, we hope to reduce employer pressure on the government to erode the law.

Fighting Back

Attacks beget counter-attacks. Trade unions are the defense organizations of the working class and we have been effective in mobilizing our counter offensive together with our allies in the social justice movement.

Within a month of the Harris government's election in 1995, our CAW President, Buzz Hargrove, sent a letter to all Ontario CAW local unions, health and safety, workers' compensation and environmental activists alerting them to the threats to present protective legislation and practices and encouraging them to write letters to the government. We felt it was particularly important to engage these activists in the fight back since for too long in our union health and safety has been seen as a technical issue rather than a political issue. Yet to us it is the most political issue in the union. What could be a more basic, fundamental contradiction in our political and economic system than the interests of capital in profit and the interests of workers in our health, our limbs and indeed our lives. We began a letter writing campaign on the key issues of:

  • Protecting the right to refuse;
  • Protecting our worker controlled institutions, the Workers Health and Safety Centre and the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers and institutions useful to workers such as the Workplace Health and Safety Agency and the Occupational Disease Panel;
  • Insisting on enforcement of health and safety laws;
  • Protecting joint health and safety committees;
  • Protecting the workers' compensation system.
Hundreds of letters were sent in.

Brother Hargrove encouraged workers to take their campaigns into their workplaces since it is the employers who lobby for the changes. "Use it or lose it" became the slogan for encouraging workers to exercise their right to refuse unsafe work.

Petition campaigns followed on specific issues such as calling on the government to retain the structure and funding of the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers and the Workers Health and Safety Centre. Other petitions called for the workers' compensation system to be maintained and not privatized. Others focused on specific problems in specific workplaces such as the abuses by General Motors of the right to refuse. Thousands of signatures were collected in CAW workplaces throughout Ontario. New Democratic Party Members of the Provincial Parliament read them out in the legislature.

But it is the demonstrations and occupations that have mobilized thousands of CAW health and safety, workers' compensation and environmental activists in the streets. Ministry of Labour offices have been occupied in a number of Ontario communities with the demonstrators insisting on a hearing from the senior MOL officials in the office to ensure that our point of view on proposed cutbacks is heard. Offices of the government Members of the Provincial Parliament as well have been occupied. The most effective occupation so far was the occupation of the Premier's constituency office in North Bay which resulted in a meeting with the Minister of Labour and her senior ministry officials. Many of these occupations have been joined by other unions and by the Injured Workers' Groups who are very well organized in the province.

It is the provincial Days of Protest which have been the most high profile. Since the employers are the ones driving the Harris agenda, the labour movement decided to engage in one day general strikes to confront the political agenda. Beginning in London in December 1995, workplaces were shut down for a day (24 CAW plants alone) together with a mass march and rally on a bitterly cold day. Protests continued in Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton where a two day event saw 100,000 march outside the Conservative Party Convention as well as shut downs in the cities of Peterborough, North Bay and Windsor. In October 1996, in Toronto, the city was completely shut down as the transit system was picketed down together with most other workplaces and a million people stayed home. Demonstrations at the Stock Exchange and a mass march the following day which resulted in public support for our views on the issues, if not our tactics, have finally resulted Harris pausing in his relentless right wing attack.

Absolutely unprecedented has been the fight of the teachers of the province. Protesting cutbacks to the education system and the centralization of power over the curriculum by the provincial government, in October 1997, teachers shut down all schools in the province for a two week strike. Although the government and the media relentlessly condemned the strike as illegal, parents joined teachers on the picket lines and the popularity of the government plummeted while the teachers' rose.

Demonstrations in cities throughout Ontario continue, with the St. Catharines workers celebrating the real labour day in 1998 on May 1st by shutting down the big General Motors plants and all of the other workplaces in this city. We are building to a general strike to shut down the entire province.

So far, our campaigns in the health and safety area have resulted in partial victories:

  • Rather than a 50% cutback in the MOL budget, it is only 30%. No MOL inspectors have been laid off and those who have left or retired will be replaced. No ergonomists or industrial hygienists have been laid off.
  • vault protection
  • Enforcement has actually improved with inspection blitzes by government inspectors in cities such as Windsor. Fines against employers for violating the law are the highest they have ever been in the province with successful prosecutions routinely resulting in fines against employers of $150,000 for the death of a worker.
  • The Workers Health and Safety Centre has been retained as have the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers.
  • The government has backed off the privatization of the workers' compensation system by eliminating the requirement for the employer to provide coverage for the first six weeks of a workers' compensation claim.

Throughout these campaigns our members have mobilized effectively at the workplace and in the streets. We have been rewarded by some partial victories.

In the context of NAFTA, American, Mexican and Canadian workers must recognize that we have a common enemy, capital. We must share our problems, our strategies, our battles and celebrate our victories. We were very pleased to be asked to support the NAFTA complaint brought by the Maquiladora Support Group on behalf of the Han Young workers whose fight for justice and better working conditions can be a call to action for workers throughout Mexico. We look forward to further opportunities to support our brothers and sisters in Mexico and the United States. The struggle continues.


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