MORE THAN YOU LIKELY EVER WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT GOVERNMENT NEGOTIATOR, PETER CAMERON

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( I have corrected the record on one point in this blog. I am informed Cameron did do some work for several public sector unions, after leaving the NDP provincial government in the mid-1990s. I wrote that he never returned to the union side of the bargaining table. I’ve changed the wording. Glad to set the record straight.)

With the teachers’ dispute predictably heating up, I thought it might be “fun” to take a look at the veteran labour relations practitioner at the head of the government’s bargaining table, someone I once knew well.

The last time I saw Peter Cameron, however, was in 2002, when I ran into him at the Vogue Theatre, before a speech by Naomi Klein.

But in the old days, when there were labour reporters, I may have talked to him as often as any trade union leader in B.C. Back then, Cameron was in the forefront of the dramatic expansion of CAIMAW, the militant, independent Canadian union that made big inroads into the B.C. mining industry during the 1970’s and 1980’s. They did this mostly by raiding bargaining units belonging to the United Steelworkers of America, taking advantage of the fact that many workers didn’t like what they considered poor representation by the Steelworkers, nor were they a fan of having their union headquarters in Pittsburgh. Cameron was CAIMAW’s chief mining negotiator, spearheading several long, difficult strikes and achieving real gains for union members. Tough and exceedingly smart, he cared deeply about improving the lot of workers, a commitment forged early on when, in defiance of his bourgeois background, Cameron joined the ultra-left Progressive Workers’ Party and took a job at the Phillips Cable plant in Vancouver. The PWP, which inevitably  fell apart, was headed by the legendary Jack Scott, once labelled by a national magazine as “the most radical man in Canada”.

Cameron was not a worker in the normal sense. He was more of an intellectual who threw in his lot with the working class during the highly-charged politics of the Sixties. But his undoubted intelligence and commitment attracted the admiration of Paul Weiler, the brilliant first chairman of the new B.C. Labour Relations Board, which became a labour relations beacon across North America during the mid-Seventies for its groundbreaking decisions under the NDP’s progressive new labour code. Unable to afford lawyers, CAIMAW often used Cameron to argue its cases before the LRB. Weiler was impressed by the young union representative’s grasp of labour law and his ability to hold his own against high-priced legal help on the other side. Cameron also thought highly of Weiler, who became a bit of a mentor. Much to the fury of the international unions and others within the so-called “house of labour”, Weiler engineered Cameron’s four-year appointment to the LRB as one of its union panelists.

However, none of that stopped Cameron from later provoking an angry scene at the LRB, after then board chairman Stephen Kelleher rejected CAIMAW’s application for a representation vote against the Steelworkers at the large Cominco smelter in Trail. (Incidentally, the head of the Steelworkers’ Trail local at the time was a young Ken Georgetti, who parlayed fending off CAIMAW into a rise in the ranks of labour to president of the BC Fed and then to the Canadian Labour Congress, where he presided for 15 years until his recent, surprising defeat.)

The normally even-tempered Cameron was apoplectic over the decision. A number of CAIMAW types subsequently occupied Kelleher’s office, which, given the quasi-judicial nature of the LRB, was not a cool thing to do. Cameron eventually apologized.

Not long afterwards, however, he had a bitter falling-out with the union that had given him a home for 15 years. He left CAIMAW (now part of Unifor) and shifted to the much milder Health Sciences Association, eventually becoming the HSA’s executive director in 1990. In 1991, the Google gods inform me, he was invited by the Democrat Socialists of America to give a speech in Oakland about the virtues of Canada’s health care system.

But the switch from CAIMAW militancy to the quasi-professional HSA seemed to spur a change in Cameron’s comfort level, away from confrontation on behalf of workers to a more sedate labour climate. In 1992, he was appointed assistant deputy health minister by the NDP, winding up on the employer’s side of the bargaining table for the first time. He liked it. Perhaps appreciative of the bigger bucks (tho he has never seemed to be in it for the money) and being allowed to operate in a rarefied atmosphere without being accountable to a pesky rank and file, Cameron only rarely acted for unions after that.

His high-water mark came quickly, when he helped broker a so-called “social contract” with B.C. health care workers not long after his deputy minister appointment. The package provided a shorter work week, more say in decision-making and job guarantees in community health care settings for union members, in return for accepting a 10 per cent cut in hospital jobs. It was a win-win deal at its best.

There’s been nothing like that under the tight-fisted Liberals, but that has not appeared to bother Cameron. As a hired gun negotiator, he has bought into the mantra of government-imposed wage restrictions, never shy about reminding unions that any settlement, no matter how minuscule, must be within mandated guidelines handed down from the finance minister. In 2012, before taking on the province’s modestly-paid social services workers, Cameron helpfully advised them that his mandate did not allow for any increase in global costs. Nice work, if you can get it…

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During the current set of talks with the province’s tenacious teachers’ union, the former hard-nosed union negotiator has upped the ante. At one point, he made the provocative  statement that meeting the teachers’ demands would threaten B.C.’s credit rating. It was a cheap shot from a smart guy, who knows full well that the teachers’ position at the table is a negotiating posture, and they would keel over in shock, if the government suddenly agreed to it.

As an aside, Cameron’s claim also flew in the face of some wise words from his former mentor, Paul Weiler. In a long-forgotten public sector dispute, Weiler brushed aside government arguments that it had no money to fund whatever wage increase might have been appropriate. Weiler reasoned that money decisions by governments are political, not fiscal. Governments can always access sufficient money to fund what they choose to fund. If they need more, they can raise taxes or other fees, said Weiler. If they choose not to do so, that’s a political decision, maybe even a good one. But it doesn’t mean the government has no money or can’t afford something.

At any rate, Cameron, backed by the government, is playing hardball against the province’s teachers, who have, until now, been playing softball. His professed outrage that the B.C. Teachers’ Federation has not reduced its wage demands is mostly showboating by a skilled bargainer playing to his government masters, the media and the public. Cameron knows that any salary deal, if there is one, will have little to do with what the teachers are asking, but will depend on when teachers feel the government has offered a package they feel they can accept. A decision by the BCTF to cut their demands by even 50 per cent, say, wouldn’t bring the parties that much closer to a settlement, since they would still be outside the government’s arbitrary wage limits. In fact, it’s a charade at best to suggest that any real negotiations can take place over wages, given the government’s guidelines in the sand. Besides, the main issue is class size and composition, not salaries.

Far worse was last week’s threat to cut teachers’ wages by 5 per cent, should they maintain their barely-noticeable job action, and by 10 per cent, should they move to Phase Two involving rotating strikes, which the BCTF announced Tuesday is exactly what they plan to do. That’s the sort of employer tactic that would have driven Cameron ballistic in the days when he was on the side of the workers.

Whatever the legality of the threat, it is quite a disproportionate response to teachers who have continued to fulfill their classroom teaching duties every day, compile report cards and involve themselves in after-school, extra-curricular student activities.

Cameron’s overkill was almost certainly designed not to pressure teachers, which is hard to do, but to provoke them, a far easier task. So now we have a scenario the government may have wanted all along – escalating job action by the province’s teachers, which could pave the way for another contract imposed by legislation. At the same time, every day the teachers are out saves the government a bucket full of money.

Of course, the government has every right to flex its confrontational muscle and hire a capable fella to represent them in bargaining against a difficult union, particularly someone who long ago abandoned his advocacy for workers.  They just shouldn’t pretend they’re the nice, reasonable guys in this troublesome dispute. Mind you, that kind of positioning is hardly new. It’s the age-old dance for public opinion, with both sides doing the venerable “we care about students” tango.

In the meantime, it’s hard to imagine a better gig for Peter Cameron, serene in the belief that he’s the smartest negotiator in the room, no messing around against mean mining companies, and being able to put the boots to your opponents on the other side of the table, while acting on behalf of an employer who holds almost all the cards, able to set wage limits the union cannot go beyond, with the power to legislate, if necessary. It’s a tough job but somebody has to do it.

 

 

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THE WONDERFUL MICHELLE STEWART

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The sad, inevitable news came this weekend that Michelle Stewart, who had bravely endured so many health problems for so many years, had breathed her last. All those close to her, and there were many, knew it was coming, and Michelle knew it was coming. So the news was not a shock. But it cast a pall, nevertheless. I first knew Michelle only over the phone and through countless emails, as she endeavoured to get me information in her role as chief communications person for the health ministry. No one knew a department better than Michelle. She was special. I felt a real attachment to her. And I dare to think it was reciprocated, perhaps because, while we were two professionals doing different jobs, we knew that each of us cared passionately about the state of B.C.’s health care system. Of course, as I got to know her better after she “retired”, I realized just how much more there was to Michelle as a person, away from her job. Below, I’ve included some words of remembrance  that I posted on Facebook, an excellent piece about Michelle by Amy Smart in the Victoria Times-Colonist, a really fine tribute by Darwin Sauer who knew her very well, and the link to Michelle’s amazing blog, which, with incredible candour, recounted her struggles with eating disorders and end-stage renal failure. The blog includes heart-rending words from Michelle that she wrote to be posted after her death.

From my Facebook page: “I’m not sure there ever was a better, more courageous, more caring, more alive person than Michelle Stewart. She was also the best communications person I ever dealt with in all my years dealing with government flacks. She was never a flack. She was smart, she was comprehensive in her knowledge, and she got you the information, with no spin or bullshit, while also articulating the health ministry’s point of view. If you are new to Michelle Stewart, who was never in the limelight, read her blog. It will astonish you. Dear Michelle, please rest in peace, and I am sure you do.”

From the Times-Colonist: http://www.timescolonist.com/news/local/blogger-michelle-stewart-s-fight-against-illness-inspired-others-1.1065871

From Darwin Sauer: http://inmemoriamofmichelle.blogspot.ca

And Michelle’s moving blog: http://bessiamabloggernow.blogspot.ca/

ROSS (“ROSCOE”) KENWARD, A GOOD MAN GONE

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As were many involved in the “good old daze” of Vancouver media, I was sad to learn of the passing of Ross Kenward, bon vivant and lens-man extraordinaire. I remember Ross well from his days as the most fun-loving photographer the Vancouver Province ever had (not a high bar, mind you….). Then, off he went to TV-land, where he excelled as a cameraman for news and myriad public affairs shows. Along the way, Ross met his life partner, the even more talented (oops…) TV journalist and host, Genevieve Westcott. Together, the high-powered couple took another big plunge in the 1980’s and headed off to Ross’s native New Zealand. I think I’m right to remember one of the reasons might have been that Kiwi TV was still using film, which Ross loved. Former colleague Anton Koschany says Ross used to grumble that film was superior because you could hold it up to the light and actually see what you had shot, versus video tape, which was just a bunch of electrons that didn’t exist at all.

At any rate, our loss was certainly New Zealand’s gain. Both Genevieve and Ross won many accolades for their current affairs work there, including a Best Current Affairs Senior Camera nod for Ross in 2005. He was a staple at TVNZ, assigned to cover stories around the world.

Since news of his passing filtered back to Vancouver, many memories and anecdotes have been unleashed among those who knew and worked with him. Once you met that big, jovial, bear of a guy, with the irrepressible laugh and zest for life, you didn’t forget him. I particularly like this reminiscence from ex-Province photographer John Denniston: “Ross was constantly late for work and the two way radio message from his car, ‘I’m on the bridge’, which we would hear about 15 minutes after his scheduled start, became a running joke, as for a long time the boss assumed this meant the Granville Bridge about two minutes from the office. But we knew it could have been any bridge, say the Second Narrows, the Lions Gate, or even the Pattullo Bridge, all of them a half hour to an hour away depending on traffic.”

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(Photo by John Denniston)

Things happened to Ross. Denniston, then free-lancing for the Sun, remembers his first encounter with “Roscoe”. As he tried to focus, the lens fell off his battered, Province-supplied camera. Among Ross’s Myspace postings is a photo of his CBC news cruiser being towed away by Buster’s. And then there was Kitimat.

It was 1976. A whole slew of us media types was there to cover a wild, explosive wildcat strike by Alcan smelter workers. It was big news. The bunch included myself and photographer Brian Kent from the Sun; Ross and Don Hunter from the Province; Brian Coxford and cameraman Rick Hull from BCTV; plus the CBC’s dysfunctional crew, Bruce Cameron and Roy LeBlanc, whose antics caused us no end of gut-wrenching hilarity.

We were all holed up in the same motel, waiting for the Mounties to swoop down on the union’s illegal picket line that barricaded the way into the smelter. As the days passed, with no move by the cops, we bonded, eating, drinking, laughing and having one hell of a good time. But “the lads” had a bit too much of a good time on the Friday night. When police finally swooped down on the line at dawn on Saturday, in full riot gear, they were still asleep. They all missed it. Except for a CBC radio reporter and me.

Events unfolded like a movie. I can still see beams from the advancing fleet of police buses cutting ominously through the ghostly early morning light. The police lined up in menacing rows, banging their shields with their riot sticks. One by one, the sleepy strikers were arrested, handcuffed and bundled onto one of the buses. And not a camera was present. Since that was the only reason everyone was in Kitimat, missing the arrests might have been cause for firing. Much to everyone’s relief, however, the cops stayed around for awhile. Brian Kent and the TV cameramen still managed to get shots of  police squads marching up and down the road. I’m not sure the bosses even noticed there was no footage of the actual arrests.

Which brings us to Ross. Not only did he sleep late, when  finally roused by the frantic knocking of Don Hunter, he found he had locked his keys in the trunk, along with his camera gear.

By the time he secured a locksmith to open the trunk, several more hours had passed, and he had nothing. Scenes of his demise at the Province must surely have floated through his mind, as Brian Kent filed his dramatic photos to the rival afternoon Sun.

But lo and behold, when Ross  made it at last  to the smelter highway, the sun high in the sky, police were still parading about. After thanking the great god of photography and kissing the ground in gratitude, Ross proceeded to take shots of every cop that moved. The Sunday Province splashed his photos all over the paper. Did anyone need to know they were taken four hours after the arrests? Sometimes, good guys get the breaks.

As a postscript, and I so love this, Don Hunter expressed his relief to Brian Kent that Ross had managed to get some photos, after all: “That was a close one, mate. Luck of the Kiwis.” Whereupon, Kent reached into his pocket and pulled out a roll of exposed film. “I had an extra one for him, if he’d missed it,” said Kent.

I’ve never had more fun on an assignment than that week in Kitimat, my best experience ever with other media on the same story. At the same time, so much other stuff went wrong that we began to call our stay there “the Kitimat curse”. Afterwards, we had T-shirts made up (a large for Ross), saying “I survived the Kitimate curse”.

Ross Kenward, in fact, was so cursed he went on to live a wonderful life, full of accomplishment and richness, loved by all who knew him. Condolences to Genevieve and son Jamie. RIP, mate.

 

HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY, MOM (1920-2008)

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One of the happiest times of my late mother’s long life was her first year of marriage, before kids, before money pressures, before fortune’s ups and downs. It was 1945. After six years of war, the future lay open. Anything seemed possible. She had joined my father in Prince Rupert, where he was teaching, and about as far from where she grew up in the Fraser Valley as possible, while still remaining in B.C. She loved the stimulus of new discoveries, on her own, far from home for the first time. My mother also taught school, the newly-weds pleasantly ensconced in a few rooms on the lower floor of a two-story wooden boarding house. They were part of a lively, progressive community in Prince Rupert, earning decent salaries, and they were very happy. Forever after, when there was a soft rainfall in Newmarket, Ont., where she lived for more than 50 years, my mother would get that dreamy look in her eye and sigh: “This reminds me of Prince Rupert….”

After that blissful year in Rupert, however, my father snared a job in Vancouver, and off they went. Young and carfree, they decided to hitch-hike the nearly 1,000 miles to Prince George and down to the Coast.

My mother loved talking about that trip, how they stayed with people they met along the route, how they made a detour to pre-touristy Barkerville when they decided to look in on a miners’ strike in nearby Wells, and especially, their frightening trip with a truck driver through the Fraser Canyon. In those days, the Canyon “highway” was a dangerous, rutted, narrow road, full of precarious hairpin bends with few guardrails. The truck driver drove quickly, explaining that the faster he drove, the sooner he would get through the Canyon. Along the way, he would casually point to spots where drivers he knew had plunged over the edge. Luckily, my parents survived that terrifying section of their adventure, and here I am.

Years later, when we made a family trip across Canada, riding the new Fraser Canyon highway, tunneled, well-paved and safe, my mom would \shudder every time she glimpsed remnants of the old road down below.

All of which is an introduction to one of my favourite photos of my mother. That’s her hitch-hiking along Highway 16 on the old, historic Telkwa Bridge near Smithers, which still stands. She was 26.

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LEST WE FORGET: DEATH ON THE JOB

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It’s chilling, the thought that each workplace fatality starts with someone heading off to work on a normal day, having no idea their time on earth is about to end. Likely without a goodbye to the ones they love, or any  sort of meaningful conversation at all before leaving the house. It’s out the door, off to work, never to return. Bereft survivors are left to mourn not only their terrible loss, but also the lack of a proper farewell, haunted that something so utterly final could happen on an otherwise routine day at work.

It happened again this week with the shocking killings at the Western Forest Products sawmill in Nanaimo. Shot dead were mill workers Mike Lunn, 62, a father, grandfather and a lone brother among seven sisters, and 53-year old hockey coach and father Fred McEachern, described by a co-worker as having “tree sap in his veins”. A message written on one of Lunn’s red T-shirts put up at the mill site read: “Daddy, you really were the best father a daughter could ask for. Love, your princess.”

Of course, these two workplace fatalities were unusual. Besides the violent circumstances, they were not connected to on-the-job duties, and they were big news. Most worker deaths attract little public notice, chalked up as “just one of those things”. They die in virtual anonymity. Beyond family, friends and co-workers, their passing is little remarked on, far removed from the outpourings of support and processions whenever a police officer or firefighter dies in the line of duty. But the impact is just as profound.

Linda Dorsett knows all about it. On a fateful September day in 2004, the last thing she expected was never again seeing her husband come through the front door.  Sean Dorsett, an experienced commercial fisherman and certified diver in Campbell River, was making a routine dive to untangle his boat’s anchor. Something went wrong, and Dorsett drowned. Linda’s first reaction was denial. “I kept calling his cellphone,” she remembered . “I was in shock. I didn’t believe it. I wanted to talk to the fishing company, his buddies, anyone that could tell me this was a mistake.”

On Tuesday, Linda Dorsett was among the speakers during an emotional ceremony at the waterfront Jack Poole Plaza to mark this country’s National Day of Mourning for workplace deaths. Although Linda was eventually able to move on from her husband’s death, raise their two young sons and keep financially afloat, the thought of the devastating day she lost her husband renewed her sorrow.

“There was never a dull moment when Sean was around, but a perfect storm of events changed our life forever. The world of grief entered my life. If only he could have said ‘goodbye’, or passed on a few words of wisdom to our sons,” she said, wiping away tears.

Using her own experience, Linda Dorsett now counsels other survivors of workplace tragedies as part of WorkSafeBC’s Family Peer Support Program. “You think you’re the only one to ever feel such grief, but sadly, you are not,” she told the large, sombre crowd. Noting pledges by employer, union and government representatives to dedicate their organizations to do even more to combat on-the-job fatalities, she paid tribute to the annual Day of Mourning, which has grown significantly in size and prominence over the years. “Days like this honour those who died and gives those left behind a little hope, too.”

While much is made of the 158 casualties suffered by Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan, and rightly so, nearly as many B.C. workers were killed on the job over just the last two years. About  the same number  succumbed to the long, painful inroads of occupation-related disease, particularly asbestosis. In Canada, nearly 1,000 workers died from work-related causes last year, about three a day. Globally, a worker dies every 15 seconds. These are grim statistics that should shock us all. Each death is one too many, but the toll continues. Meanwhile, the number of unscrupulous employers jailed for wanton disregard of safety on the job is zero. B.C. Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair is onto something when he calls for all workplace fatalities to be investigated by the RCMP.

With government flags at half-staff, solemn statements and Vancouver’s Olympic flame lit at Jack Poole Plaza, the Day of Mourning has become a sort of Remembrance Day for workers, all of whom wanted to live, none of whom needed to die. “Every workplace injury is preventable,” WorkPlaceBC chair George Morfitt reminded those present.

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The day also gives families of the dead a chance to pay their respects and once more mourn their loss. Numerous family members, including children, were present on Tuesday, their sad faces attesting to their bereavement.

Before a final procession led by a ceremonial piper and honour guard, the speeches ended with a heartfelt poem written and read out by Grade 5 student Silver Kuris. The youngster was honouring her father, who died in a workplace accident Jan. 22, 2011. She entitled her poem: “My Daddy”.

“I know my Dad is up in heaven./He’s been there since I was seven…It’s not fair to lose a Dad./It makes me sad, it makes me mad!/Dads shouldn’t die, just going to work./It just isn’t right, that dangers may lurk.”

In her rhythmical, sing-song, 10-year old voice, the youngster concluded: “I love you, Dad…Love, Silver.”

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THE BEAT GOES ON

I really enjoyed this blast from the past: Jack Kerouac’s glimpse of night-time New York City in it’s hip, cool, jazz heyday. Such a time.

http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2013/06/13/jack-kerouac-lonesome-traveler-new-york/?utm_content=bufferfa2f9&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

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