About 20 members of the “Union of the Employees of the Old Port Corporation of Montreal” (Syndicat des employés de la société du Vieux Port de Montréal) rallied on short notice the night of December 28 before an open-house meeting held by their employer at the port’s Science Centre organized to solicit the public’s thoughts on the future of the Old Port.
“We are here to remind our employer that the workers of union local 10333 – Public Service Alliance of Canada (Alliance de la fonction publique du Canada) – are also part of its recreational and touristic future”, says Jacques Fontaine, an events planner and Local 10033 member who is part of the negotiations committee for a new contract to place the old one set to expire on March 31. “43% of the workers of the old port earn less than $15/hour. Out of a total of 250 workers during the winter season – 300 during the height of the summer tourist season – only 100 are full-time: these are the only ones entitled to an employer-matching plan retirement fund and sick days. For those who, like me, who work on a precarious basis, work hours can vary from 0 to over 50 and there are no retirement or sick day benefits to speak of.”
“Although the Old Port is on federal land, our classification as “federal workers” allows the government to delegate our work to private sub-contractors who are allowed to pay us less than comparable work done by those classified as “federal government employees”, because we fall under a separate, much weaker collective bargaining agreement – a moral and political outrage. We have to negotiate as a relatively small group (compared with the public sector workers) with a publicly-run corporation who deploys union-busting tactics. Our current strategy is to prioritize the demand for $15/hour for our lowest paid workers, and widen the network of labor support by reaching out to the $15+ campaign here in Montreal” explains Pierre Veilleux, a 8-year veteran maintenance specialist.
“Nevertheless, in the last collective bargaining 2 years ago we managed through our blood, sweat and tears – and solidarity – to avoid givebacks and believe we can do again during the current negotiations. Our current strategy is to prioritize the demand for $15/hour for our lowest paid workers, and widen the network of labor support by reaching out to the $15+ campaign here in Montreal”.
The fight against precarity
While the negotiations between the Old Port Corporation of Montreal (Société du Vieux-Port de Montréal) and its workers pale in size compared to those underway between the 400,000-strong public sector Common Front and the provincial government, they nevertheless contain vital lessons for the over 500,000 members of Quebec’s work force who work under precarious conditions – with or without a union
“In addition to the demand for minimum wage of $15 for all our workers, we demand 1) sick days for all employees; 2) vacation days; 3) reimbursement for sick days not taken; 4) incentive pay for night and weekend work. For the 100 of us who are entitled, we are unwilling to accept reductions in the percentage of our salaries that our employer contributes to our retirement funds, which is currently at 7.5%. These are minimal demands for us workers, who are representative of the overall population in terms of age, race and sex”, explains Veilleux.
“As a member of the collective bargaining team, I represent a wide spectrum of labor: educational staff for our Science Center, events planners, maintenance staff like myself, parking attendants and even security. We really are a microcosm of Montreal”.
From industrial hub to tourist destination
Standing at the confluence of the St. Laurence Seaway and the man-made Lachine Canal, the Old Port lies at the tip of a jetty that not long ago contained some of North America’s largest flour mills and concentration of working class, richly referenced in the magnificent working class novels and stories of French Canadian writer Gabrielle Roy.
Not surprisingly, the history of the area is rich in labor militancy, beginning with a worker uprising in the building of the canal itself. Now the factories are empty, and the waterfront has been developed for urban use with bike trails and cultural attractions, such as the annual music festival Igloofest and the Science Center. While Fontaine and Veilleux see themselves as continuing a vital labor tradition, they are also honest about the new challenges posed by austerity and neo-liberalism.
As Veilleux explains: “The proliferation of subcontracting makes it easy for the employer little-by-little to transfer (wo)manpower from union to non-unionized labor. This exerts continual downward pressure on our numbers, particularly since the employer often pays more for non-union work to make it more attractive to workers. For instance, non-unionized cleaners are paid $17 an hour – $4/hour more than those in the union. They lose any chance of sick and vacation days and retirement benefits. That’s why the stakes are so high for us, and why we can’t stop mobilizing, not only with our union brothers and sisters, but also with the campaign for $15, whose support and collaboration has been invaluable to us”.