October 29, 2021 - No. 101

Canadian Union of Public Employees Members in
New Brunswick Begin Strike Action

All Out to Support Workers' Struggle for Their Rights and in Defence of
Public Services!

Rally in Sackville for frontline workers, August 28, 2021.

Unemployed Workers Week
Advocacy Organizations Highlight Urgency of Defending Rights of Unemployed
Regressive Changes Made to Employment Insurance Regime Over the Years

Canadian Union of Public Employees Members in
New Brunswick Begin Strike Action

All Out to Support Workers' Struggle for Their Rights and in Defence of Public Services!

The Canadian Union of Public Employees -- New Brunswick, (CUPE NB) announced around 5:00 am this morning that strike action by members of 10 locals is beginning today. Picket lines have been set up in various locations across the province starting at 6:00 am The union will provide more information later today as events unfold. Workers’ Forum supports the workers' strike for their rights and for the services and calls on all workers in Canada to provide all the support they can.

In its October 27 press release, CUPE NB announced that mediated talks between the CUPE Centralized Bargaining Team and the government of New Brunswick ended that day, after the government broke off talks. CUPE's centralized team represents ten locals and approximately 22,000 members. Most locals have been waiting for new collective agreements for over four years. Their members' wages have stagnated and declined over the past twelve years, mostly as a result of wage freezes and recurring one per cent wage increases. According to CUPE, in addition to impoverishing public sector workers in New Brunswick, who are now the lowest paid in Canada, this has also aggravated the serious problem of retaining workers as well as attracting workers to the public service and has even caused out-of-province labour migration.

Speaking to the union's demands, CUPE NB President Steve Drost wrote in the release: "We moved significantly from our initial demand, expecting some reciprocity and goodwill from the government, but that did not happen."

The union informs that in order to obtain a settlement, it reduced its wage demands. It lowered its wage demands to a three per cent increase per year for a 4-year contract, without concessions. In its last offer, the government put forward a two per cent wage offer for a 5-year contract, along with an unacceptable concession on the issue of pensions, especially given that this centralized negotiation was supposed to be about wages only. On the morning of October 27, government negotiators simply walked away from the table for the second time in as many months.

Premier Blaine Higgs told reporters that his offer is now off the table and that the government has nothing else to offer. "We're not going higher," he stated.

With regard to the pension concession, Steve Drost had this to say to Workers' Forum:

"The government wants to convert two defined-benefit pension plans of locals in the education sector to [that of] a shared-risk model, which the members are opposed to. And it wants to make that part of the negotiations. He is holding the other locals hostage [saying that] either you convert your pensions or none of you is getting anything and you can hit the streets. Nobody gets a raise and we have members who have been waiting for a collective agreement for five years. This is entirely unacceptable."

"The members of our ten locals have said enough is enough. They want to hit the streets and we are holding planning sessions right now. The public has really rallied to our side, which is wonderful. They recognize the value of our workers. They also recognize that this Premier is not playing fair. I am very proud of our members. We are fighting to protect all New Brunswickers and the public services."

The government continued its provocations by saying it is prepared to pass back-to-work legislation or even use the powers it says it has under the Emergency Measures Act in emergency situations, such as it decreed in response to the worsening COVID-19 pandemic.

The demands of New Brunswick's public sector workers for conditions they deem acceptable to themselves and essential for the delivery of public services are just. That is the issue here. The demands of the New Brunswick government are unjust. The claim being laid by public sector workers that they must be able to deliver services without becoming impoverished and having to constantly face a serious retention and recruitment problem which decimates the workforce is necessary, one which defends the interests of all the people and of the society as a whole.

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Unemployed Workers Week

Advocacy Organizations Highlight Urgency of Defending Rights of Unemployed

Marking unemployed workers' week in Lac St. Jean, October 25, 2021.

October 25-31 is Unemployed Workers Week across Quebec.

On this occasion, advocacy organizations working with unemployed workers are highlighting the need for immediate measures and a thorough reform of the employment insurance system, to ensure that workers have a decent, Canadian-standard income that allows them to live a dignified life. One of the main interventions is to denounce the arbitrary and discriminatory nature of the eligibility criteria for employment insurance, which results in barely 40 per cent of unemployed workers being entitled to benefits.

In a video produced for the Week, the Unemployment Action Movement, Montreal, states:

"Less than half of workers will be protected if they are unemployed, despite having paid into employment insurance benefits during all their working years.

"[...] As soon as you quit, you're no longer entitled to benefits. We have several cases where people who resigned because of harassment, because of practices by their employer that run counter to the law, will end up with absolutely nothing when they leave their job. [...] At present, only salaried employees, people who pay into employment insurance, are protected. This excludes self-employed workers, on-demand workers, commonly referred to as gig workers. Eligibility criteria for employment insurance are very stringent. This is something we've been denouncing for over thirty years. To have access to employment insurance, you have to have worked a certain number of hours in the last year. This is to verify whether you are part of the labour market. This criterion of number of hours worked in the last year has more than doubled over the last 25 years. The system is difficult to access for workers with precarious jobs. One can just imagine someone working part-time at minimum wage ending up with 55 per cent of nothing. [Benefits are set at 55 per cent of the claimant's wage during the period prior to their job loss -- WF Ed. Note.]"

One example of such arbitrary measures is the adoption, in late September, of so-called transitional measures by the federal government as it prepares for a comprehensive reform of the system. One of these measures includes the establishment of a national, universal threshold for benefit eligibility of 420 hours of work. Advocacy organizations support the introduction of a national threshold of hours, even though many are calling for it to be lowered. However, they remain critical about the fact that the number of weeks of benefits is to be based on the number of hours worked and on the official unemployment rate of the region in which the claimant lives. Concretely, this means that for 420 hours of work, the claimant will be entitled to approximately 14 weeks of benefits. This means, amongst other things, that seasonal workers will not be entitled to a sufficient number of weeks of benefits to cover the period before their seasonal work kicks in. They will be without income during a period of time that the unemployed call the "black hole."

Activists also point out that the consultation process announced by the Trudeau government for the system's reform is a sham consultation to justify inaction and the maintaining of the unacceptable status quo. Already, the federal government's questionnaire initiating the consultation is full of loaded questions. For example, it asks whether respondents are willing to pay more in contributions to the regime if eligibility for benefits is made easier. Or whether respondents think that increased eligibility for benefits would worsen the labour shortage problem.

Commenting on the consultation, the Autonomous and Solidarity Movement of the Unemployed (MASSE) writes:

"The government continues to cultivate a vagueness around this second phase. Will workers and unemployed groups have the opportunity to make their voices heard in an impartial process where the terms do not disadvantage them from the start? In the end, the same groups that file briefs and recommendations every year will file the same criticisms and demands. Why would one expect anything different from this process? [...] For MASSE, one thing is certain: the establishment of an accessible, fair, universal and non-discriminatory employment insurance system can no longer be the subject of eternal debate."

MASSE and its member organizations have also used social media to elaborate various aspects of an employment insurance system that would protect all the unemployed.  In particular, a virtual discussion was organized on October 26 to discuss a financially viable reform of the system that would cover the needs of all the unemployed.  One of the proposals put forward was the restoration of federal government contributions to the EI fund. The federal government ended its funding in 1990 as part of its austerity measures under the hoax of reducing the budget deficit. Another proposal dealt with the use of the EI fund for “support measures” that are supposed to help the unemployed find work.  Often these are used to deny workers’ benefits.  The participants agreed that the funds contributed by workers and employers to the EI fund should only be used for benefits for those who are without work. “Support measures” should be entirely separate, not linked to EI eligibility, and funded independent of the EI fund. 

Although they vary according to organization, the demands of unemployed workers' advocacy organizations all seek to establish a single, universal national threshold of hours worked that allows for the maximum number of unemployed workers to access benefits; significant increases in the amount of benefits and their duration; the inclusion of self-employed and on-demand workers; an end to the total exclusion of workers who lose their jobs through so-called voluntary departure or who are fired; and access to regular employment insurance benefits in the case of having lost one's job, irrespective of whether one received maternity and parental benefits.

The fight for the rights of unemployed workers is a just struggle that is an integral part of the struggle of the working class for its rights and for a new direction for the economy, one which serves the needs of the people, not narrow private interests. Employment insurance cannot be based on the vagaries of the labour market. It must be a social program to protect the unemployed from an economic system that neither capable nor designed to provide employment and a livelihood for all.

Workers' Forum firmly supports the work of the defence organizations of unemployed workers to ensure that they have what they need and are entitled to in order to live a life in dignity.

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Regressive Changes Made to Employment
Insurance Regime Over the Years

Ottawa picket in 2005 on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the On to Ottawa trek opposed money taken out of the unemployment insurance system.

Successive federal governments have consistently made the eligibility criteria and conditions of the Employment Insurance program more unfavourable to workers. Here are some of the major changes that have been made since the early 1990s.

In 1990, the Conservative government of Brian Mulroney passed a law whereby the federal government ceased its contributions to what was then called unemployment insurance. This was done in the name of fighting the federal government's budget deficit, one of the major themes of the anti-social offensive. Since then, only workers and employers pay into the system.

In 1993, the Conservative government passed legislation that imposed the loss of benefit entitlement for those deemed to have voluntarily left their jobs without justification or to have lost their jobs due to "misconduct" (in the case of dismissal, for example).

In 1994, the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien reduced the benefit rate from 57 per cent to 55 per cent of the claimant's salary. The Conservative government had reduced the rate from 60 per cent to 57 per cent.

In 1996, the Liberal government introduced a series of major changes to the program, which became the Employment Insurance (EI) Program. Eligibility and duration of benefits were now based on hours of work rather than weeks of work. This change from weeks to hours negatively impacted many workers, affecting part-time workers in a particularly brutal way. This is seen as one of the key measures that has rapidly reduced eligibility for EI to fewer than 50 per cent of the unemployed. In another measure, the maximum number of weeks payable in EI benefits has been reduced from 50 to 45 weeks.

It is on the basis of these measures that the program accumulated huge so-called surpluses and $57 billion was transferred into the government’s general revenues to be used for its schemes to pay the rich. In 2008, Stephen Harper's Conservative government closed the old employment insurance account. This administrative decision made official the theft of the EI fund!

In 2012, Stephen Harper's Conservative government imposed other major regressive reforms of the EI system. Among other things, the government created separate classes of unemployed workers; frequent claimants, occasional claimants and long-tenured workers, who no longer have the same rights and are not subject to the same obligations. The most targeted workers are frequent claimants, defined as those who have filed three claims in the last five years or who have received regular benefits for 60 weeks or more. They now had to accept a lower wage than others in their job search or their benefits were cut off. A frequent claimant now had to look for a similar or different job and accept a wage equivalent to 70 per cent of his or her former one starting in the 7th week of his or her benefit period. They also had to accept such work an hour or more commuting time from their homes.

The Harper government also created the Social Security Tribunal, which replaced the former tripartite appeal bodies (chairperson, worker representative, employer representative) for workers who want to challenge decisions of the Employment Insurance Commission. The unemployed worker had to bring his or her case before a single commissioner who does not even have to meet with him or her personally. The meeting can be done by telephone or video conference.

The Trudeau government has reversed some of the Harper reforms, for example, eliminating the categories of claimants and bringing back the tripartite structure of the appeal process. But the other regressive changes remain.

Against all these regressive changes, workers and organizations of the unemployed demand that their voices be heard and that the Trudeau government meet their demand for an accessible, fair, universal and non-discriminatory employment insurance system. 

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