State of the Union

State of the Union

“SOMEONE TO SEE YOU.”

Mike Hachey didn’t have time. Not today. He was in the process of sorting through paperwork dregs from last week’s Atlantic Lottery commercial shoot, planning a Canada Games event wrap-up, juggling planned/hoped-for/maybe pitches for future projects and overseeing – from the afar of Halifax – renovations at his company’s Moncton office. And, oh, yes, Sara Thomas, Egg Films’ president (and Hachey’s life partner), was off on maternity leave.

No time…

“There’s someone here to see you.”

THE WOMAN WHO’D ARRIVED, unannounced, at Hachey’s downtown Halifax office at 3 p.m. on Friday, March 11, 2011, was Mary Lou Stewart, the chief operating officer of the Nova Scotia Labour Board. She had come to hand-deliver a message she carried in a yellow envelope. The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts (IATSE), Local 849, had applied for certification to represent technical crews on Egg’s commercial productions.

What! This must be some sort of mistake. We’re good people. We pay our technicians better than union scale. They like us. We like them… Why?… The woman asked for a list of Egg’s technician employees as of March 5, 2011. Employees? They’re not… Hachey gave her the call sheet from the lottery commercial.

There will be a vote this coming Wednesday, Stewart announced. She had a notice about the vote too. He was to post it in a prominent place so his employees would see it. Employees? Hachey tried to explain. The technicians weren’t his employees. He hired them to work on commercial shoots. They’d work a day, maybe two on location, get paid and be gone. Most never even came to the office. Hachey eventually agreed he would post the notice beside the elevator and at reception.

Can I contact them? Talk to them? Tell them what we think? You shouldn’t, Hachey remembers Stewart advising him. Though Stewart didn’t say so, there were sound historical reasons for the formalistic, legalistic, even adversarial nature of this process; employers too often attempted to intimidate workers who tried to form unions.

But what did any of that have to do with Mike Hachey, his modestly successful production studio and his (he was convinced) happy freelancers?

I suggest, Stewart suggested, you contact your lawyer.

For Mike Hachey, none of it made sense. And yet, all of it did.

In the early 1980s, 33.4 per cent of Canada’s private sector workers belonged to trade unions. Today, that percentage has shrunk to less than half that, just 16 per cent, and continues to shrivel faster than a pricked balloon. There are all sorts of reasons for this: global competition, outsourcing, technological displacement, western consumer demand for ever cheaper goods and services, corporate attacks on the traditional rights of unions and the rise of corporate-friendly media cheerleaders and right-wing governments that have collectively altered the legislative landscape and made organizing increasingly more difficult.

All of this has played out against the backdrop of the emergence of a generation for whom the solidarity-forever victories of the past – the 40-hour work week, holidays with pay, pensions, employment standards, unemployment insurance, family allowances, universal health care and progressive taxation – seem hopelessly historic. What can a union do for me now, besides take my hard-earned wages for its dues?

None of this is to suggest that unions have actually become irrelevant. Or that the need for balance in the workplace is passé.

You don’t need to be a union-makes- me-strong activist to recognize that the lack of a strong, countervailing labour movement contributed to tragedies like the July collapse of that Bangladeshi garment factory in which 1,132 workers were killed while making cheap clothes for western consumers. Or the reality that, according to international investigators, Chinese workers are currently making those newer, cheaper iPhones we covet while standing through 12-hour shifts, six days a week, for an average of 69 hours a week in a factory without adequate protective equipment and at risk from chemicals, noise and lasers.

And it’s not just in the Third World where labour’s increasing impotence changes the landscape, often for the worse.

According to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the bottom 90 per cent of Canadians, which is to say most of us, earn just $1,700 a year more today, adjusted for inflation, than we did in 1982 when unions were still a dominant force. By contrast, the top one per cent of Canadians make (again adjusted for inflation) almost $180,000 more today than they did in the year Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical” topped the Billboard music charts.

Unions used to act as a check on such inequities.

Thanks in part to globalization and de- unionization, they no longer do. And those power dynamics filter down to the local level.

Consider the case of AB InBev, the world’s largest brewing company. Its after- tax profits last year foamed to $9.4 billion on sales of close to $40 billion USD. If you drink any one of 200 beer brands – from Budweiser to Becks, from China’s Harbin to Belgium’s Hoegaarden – you’re actually drinking InBev beer.

In 1995, one of the conglomerates that would ultimately become InBev, after ever more acquisitions, mergers and mash-ups, paid $2 billion to acquire Labatt, Canada’s largest brewing company. Including its St. John’s operation.

That plant’s 50 workers are represented by the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees. NAPE is the province’s largest union with 27,000 members – a significant number in Newfoundland terms, but a trifle in the global corporate scheme of things.

When the clearly profitable company began negotiating a new contract for its Newfoundland workers last year, its starting point was an Alpha-to-Omega demand for concessions on everything from wage rates fornewhirestomedicalbenefitsforretirees. After those discussions bogged down in late March 2013, the company instructed its union workers to begin training the non-union employees it intended to bring in to replace them in the event of a strike. That triggered a brief wildcat strike, which was followed by an official strike vote – unanimous – and a picket that continues to this day.

This past summer, the union launched a limited boycott of beers produced in the St. John’s plant. But, even with the support of the Canadian Labour Congress and other unions across the country, that is unlikely to cause even a modest belch at Labatt/InBev, which has five other breweries across this country alone.

What does all of that have to do with Mike Hachey?

Nothing. And everything.

Mike Hachey hadn’t paid much attention to unions or their place in the larger world. He’ll tell you he has nothing against unions, so long as they don’t interfere with his ability to run his own small business.

Hachey’s 10-year-old Egg Films is Atlantic Canada’s largest commercial production house. It employs more than a dozen fulltime producers, directors, audio engineers, post- production specialists and administrators, and performs mostly corporate and web video work. “If it moves,” says Sara Thomas, “we can make it.” It also shoots the occasional TV or web-based commercial, either directly for corporate clients or through advertising agencies. Hachey says Egg’s commercial business is a small piece of a small pie: no more than 15 to 20 shooting days in a typical year.

Which is where IATSE wanted to come in. IATSE is an international union that represents stage hands, electrics, gaffers, grips, carpenters, wardrobe, hair and make- up, catering and other behind-the-scenes crews in the entertainment business, a labour category waterfront that covers everything from Hollywood blockbusters to indie films, TV series and plenty of live concerts and shows in between.

But not commercials.

Traditionally, the commercial production side of the business hasn’t been unionized, in part because most shoots last no more than a few days. Many production companies, including Egg, employ mostly union crews on their shoots anyway, because they’re the most skilled, experienced people available. Egg pays union rates or better in order to attract technicians who continue to earn most of their income from lucrative, longer-term unionized projects.

That said, Egg considers them independent freelancers. It doesn’t pay workers’ compensation or unemployment insurance on their behalf, and it doesn’t contribute to their union pension, health or benefit plans.

Hachey insists the technicians he hires don’t care about those things. Some operate their own freelance businesses and carry their own insurance. Many feel they already contribute more than enough to pensions and benefits through their union jobs on film and TV projects. “Commercials are gravy for them,” Hachey says.

The only real loser from that arrangement, of course, was the union, which reaped no dues, or contributions to member benefits programs as a result, but which, after all, had used its clout to help create the fiscal framework that created the union scale Egg now pays better than.

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