Businesses and the provincial government need to make treating workers better a priority, says Manitoba Federation of Labour president Kevin Rebeck, who was in Thompson Sept. 12-13 for meeting with local unions and labour organizations.
Rebeck and other MFL leadership came north for quarterly meetings for the first time in a few years as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and he said it was valuable to see union leaders in person and hear their concerns about how the rising cost of living and the practices of their employers are affecting their members.
One of the issues he heard about from United Steelworkers Local 6166 president Warren Luky, leader of the union that represents hundreds of hourly workers at Vale Manitoba Operations, is their employer’s greater reliance in recent years on a contractor workforce.
“They’re really trying to take advantage of changing that workforce and not necessarily using as many local people as they have in the past,” said Rebeck, agreeing that the provincial government’s decision to pursue provincewide bargaining for teachers doesn’t take into account higher costs of living in different areas or the challenges that northern school divisions can have attracting and retaining teachers. “Sometimes you have to have different incentives and rules in place to make that work.”
Rebeck says the provincial government has treated its unionized workers “like crap,” interfering in the collective bargaining process in an effort to cap wage increases at levels it deems acceptable. At the same time, it has moved to give non-unionized political staff a retroactive pay increase of one per cent dating back to 2019.
“It’s quite disgusting to see how this government views public sector workers,” he said, trying to save money by not replacing employees who retire or leave, which increases the workload for those who remain and ups the odds of employees burning out, which is leading to staffing crises in healthcare and other sectors.
Concessions the government has made, not to its own union employees, but to workers in general, are not enough to make a difference, Rebeck says. Though the minimum wage will go up to $13.50 this October and to $15 a year later, that’s less than the amount that a worker needs to get by.
“The promise has always been that a job is a path out of poverty but for minimum wage workers, it still isn’t and that’s something that needs to change,” he said, pointing to legally requiring 10 paid sick days per year for all workers as a policy change that needs to come into effect.
Rebeck says he is well aware of complaints from some businesses, many of which pay minimum wage or only slightly higher, about people not wanting to work. for the MFL president, the issue isn’t willingness to work but a desire for better conditions.
“I think people want to work but they’re tired of being exploited,” he said.
Though paying workers more increases a business’s costs and can reduce profit margins, Rebeck says it also puts more income into the hands of people who will spend any extra they make in their local economics. “What businesses really need are people in the community with some disposable income to come be their customers.”
Right now, as a result of labour shortages, workers have greater bargaining power than they did before the COVID-19 pandemic, though it can be tough to extract better wages from employers who say that it’s not a good time for them because non-labour costs are rising as well.
“When can you afford to?” he asks. “You can’t afford to when times are good. You can’t afford to when times are bad. The reality is, if you want workers and you want them to be good to you, then you need to be good to them.”
Unsurprisingly, the head of the MFL, which represents unions with more than 100,000 public and private sector workers in Manitoba, says people who want better working conditions should consider becoming unionized, which Rebeck says will likely result in them getting higher wages than non-union workers do for the same job. He also believes having a unionized workforce can benefit employers, by reducing employee turnover and giving them a bigger stake in their industry.
“We want businesses to succeed so there are jobs,” Rebeck says. “We just want a fair share of their profits to go to the workers that provide those services and make those businesses successful.”
When unions thrive, he says, all workers benefit from better wages and benefits that are needed to attract and keep employees.
Also unsurprisingly, Rebeck believes that a change in government is the key to getting a better deal for working people.
“Fortunately, next year Manitobans will have that opportunity when they go to the polls to see if this is the sort of government they want to see carry on or if they want to see a government that invests in people and jobs and families.”