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Canadian Strikers Weather the Cold for Fair Wages

by D-L Nelson
France

What turns a happy employee and grandmother into a striker willing to walk an icy picket line in Hamilton, ON, Canada for almost six months? Nancy Bachorski says unfair treatment is to blame.

For twenty-six years, Bachorski worked as a mortgage administrator at F1rstOntario Credit Union and she loved her job. She would recommend her credit union to people in passing and while chatting with them as she walked her dog.
Canada’s 400+ credit unions are member-owned financial institutions that hold CND$94 billion in assets. Unlike banks, credit union profits are returned to the membership or the community. In 2006 they donated over CND$36 million to community projects.

In April 2006 management started negotiating a new contract with Bachorski’s union, COPE Local 343. In May, F1rstOntario’s relatively new CEO, John Lahey, announced its most profitable year ever.

Nancy and her co-workers had seen some changes that didn’t please them. Owners-members, their distinguishing feature from banks, were now called customers. Many managers were replaced. The credit union complained that high employee costs would make them lose their competitive edge.

In a letter to the membership, Lahey explained that the credit union wanted to increase the ratios between part- and full-time employees, reduce sick days and disability, and cut back on post-retirement benefits.

COPE Local 343 claimed that employees working under a certain number of hours would not receive any benefits, and that it would be easy for the credit union to keep employees under those required numbers. The union would have 14 meetings before a strike was finally called October 20th when 69 women and one man walked out. At one of the last bargaining sessions, Bachorski said Lahey called the women stupid.

The credit union demands sounded reasonable until Labor Attorney Susan Ursel, who works with COPE Local 343, issued a press release stating: “These concessions would cost an individual woman between $10,000 and $24,000 in immediate lost benefits and more in the long run. By way of understanding the magnitude of concessions their employer wants, it helps to know they make around $30,000 a year. When was the last time you heard of management in the financial sector giving up the equivalent of nearly a year’s pay?”

Credit unions in Canada are usually employee-friendly. Two credit unions made the top 50 Canadian Employers List and offer many perks to their employees such as gyms, counselling services, flex time, good pay and better than average benefits packages.

When the strike began, two branches were closed. Management manned the others. Members had mixed reactions, but many signed a petition to be presented at the 2007 Annual General Meeting held December 5th calling for Lahey’s resignation. He cancelled the AGM claiming picketers might harm attendees, even though the picketers had promised not to picket.

With negotiations faltering in the strike, the strikers saw the AGM as an opportunity for members to change management’s attitude.

The cancellation is in violation of the by-laws of the credit union and the Caisse Populaires Act. The act and by-laws are how the credit union operates legally, Bachorski said. However, the credit union was backed by the Financial Services Commission of Ontario (FSCO).

The local Member of Parliament, Andrea Horwath, disagreed and challenged the government’s support. A petition had been filed with the courts calling for the AGM to be held but the ruling had not come down. Horwath was not the only supporter. The nearby St. Catharines’ GM plant took up a gate collection for their COPE Local 343 strikers netting $7,000. Rallies were held and broadcast over the internet.

The credit union waived fees for members disturbed by the strike, but not for strikers or their families. Likewise when collections were taken up by strike supporters, the funds were not accepted by the credit union.

Bachorski said it was bitterly cold some days on the picket line (-28° with the wind chill factor). She and the others had special packets of charcoal that when shaken gave off warmth. It helped the many cold hands and feet, but not for long. The hours walked were reduced from four to two. She also observed that it was unwise to eat or drink, because of the lack of toilet facilities.

Bachorski is in a better economic position than many of the strikers because she has a husband. One fellow striker, a single-mom, is having trouble making her rent. Some strikers have taken part-time jobs, which wasn’t an option for Bachorski because she had to be available for talks, even though only one took place before March. Both sides said the other refused to negotiate.

The strikers are now demanding action from the McGuintry government on the impasse.

In February, 15 of the employees settled when the credit union offered contract signing bonuses of $2,000 to $3,000 depending on seniority, according to COPE Local 343 Spokesperson Patty Clancy.

The strike has had more effects. The credit union was sponsoring the 2007 Tim Hortons Brier Curling Championship, but had to withdraw when The Hamilton District Labour Council asked that the teachers’ unions attending honor the picket lines.

In March talks resumed, one lasting far into the night. Lahey, however, has threatened to eliminate eight posts when the strike ends.

When Bachorski gets discouraged she thinks of the kids from the nearby Catholic High School. “At first they jeered us telling us to get back to work. But then some listened to what we were doing and why. How we wanted to defend not just our rights, but the rights of future employees. At the end one teenage boy hugged me.” It isn’t just the hug that keeps her going. It is also the knowledge that if they win, the lives of the strikers, as well as all future employees of the credit union, will be safer financially.

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