Saturday, August 15, 2009

On the farm workers' decertification vote

You may have heard about the migrant workers at a farm in Manitoba who first voted to unionize, then to decertify. Predictably, the usual spin by the MSM is that unions are no good for farm workers, blah blah blah. Interestingly, though, the Winnipeg Free Press (of all things) has published an opinion piece which puts a rather different light on things:

Recent media reports state that workers at Mayfair Farms in Portage La Prairie chose to decertify after the long struggle to unionize. What those reports don't talk about is the threats that workers received when they expressed interest in unionizing. At least one strong union supporter was denied return to Mayfair Farms this year.

The day before the decertification vote the Mexican consul -- which has a vested interest in keeping workers in Canada, as their remittances are a major source of national income -- held a closed-door meeting with workers at Mayfair Farms. Early this summer the Mexican consul visited all farms with seasonal agricultural workers in Manitoba letting workers know that should they unionize they would be blacklisted.

The lack of permanent status, the ever-present threat of being sent home, their isolation and their inability to communicate in either official language leave them among the most exploited of Canadian workers. Yet, they keep coming back.

As Diego explains; "I know I'm exploited here. At least if I work here my children eat. At home I'm exploited and my children don't eat."

Workers are keen to get as many hours as they can while they are in Canada -- up to 110 hours/week. A major gain for unionized workers had been the equal distribution of overtime hours. Without a union, in periods of work shortage, only those workers closest to the boss, such as crew foremen, would work overtime. With a union, overtime hours were shared equally. The union contract also ensured that workers who became sick were taken care of, instead of being sent home.

Unfortunately, the important gains that the unionized workers achieved were offset by the employer's decision to undermine the union by reducing the work week to a maximum of 70 hours. This sudden and arbitrary reduction in the work week meant that workers lost up to 30 per cent of their income, a move Mayfair Farms knew would be devastating to workers trying to send as much money as possible to their impoverished families. Clearly this was a very effective strategy in reducing union support. Now that the union has been decertified, workers are only protected by provincial legislation.

The CBC article linked to above is actually far more right wing in its spin than this piece. I find this a bit strange, given the accusations generally leveled at the CBC for having a "left wing bias".

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