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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33 thoughts on “MORE THAN YOU LIKELY EVER WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT GOVERNMENT NEGOTIATOR, PETER CAMERON

  1. Rod, old sock, you’ve demonstrated yet again why all MSM should be ashamed of the disappearance of labour beat reporters. Couldn’t at least one or two of the legions of “business” reporters cover the lives and livelihood of the millions of working people in Canada (union and non union)? Apparently not. Oh, and you’re still a pretty good writer…

    • There’s no labour reporter like an old labour reporter…hehe…..thanks, Doug…nice to hear from you…it’s not hopeless out there in the MSM….there are still good people doing good stories….but yes, decent coverage of labour issues and “ordinary workers” is not what it was….and it’s not just labour that has lost beat reporters….staffing cuts have reduced the ranks of all beat reporters, and we are the poorer for it….

    • Doug is dead right on all counts! Good piece Rod.

  2. Nice work, Rod. This really dates me, but I recall meeting Cameron a few times during the 1984 NDP provincial leadership campaign when I think he was working for the Skelly campaign. I’d completely lost touch with his subsequent, uh, evolution. Not sure what the lessons are though. Another case study of how the farther left you start out, the farther right you end up?

    • “The Prince”.Nobody does Machiavelli like Peter Cameron, knew him well in the 70’s.In my opinion he is a modern day “prince” well suited to Christy Clarke and her ego- centric ways and her continuing war against those she sees as mentally superior to her. The teachers shall be doomed if they continue to deal with the ‘Prince” as if he had principles.The Cameron show goes on.

  3. Nice article and so true, how someone who represented workers can work for the Liberal government is beyond me. Thanks for reminding folks just who he is and who gave him his start.

  4. You demonstrate why there are no more labor reporters, Rod. The people who own newspapers now (the few) aren’t particularly interested in giving the public the insights you used to give them, or could now. (E.g., “[O]utrage that the B.C. Teachers’ Federation has not reduced its wage demands is nothing more than showboating by a skilled bargainer playing to his government masters, the media and the public.”) Plus it’s cheaper not to hire specialist reporters but go with lots of kids out of J school.

  5. An interesting,informative and important article with background entirely ignored to date by the rest of the entire media. Suspect it might be useful info for the current BCTF leadership–as well as membership–right now. There’s virtually no chance of a negotiated settlement in the scenario you correctly describe and so we can expect a legislated one. Will be important to see where John Horgan stands on that. Public sector negotiations these days seem to call for imaginative as well as quick thinking on both sides of the table. Great stuff, Rod. Thoroughly enjoyed reading it. JF.

  6. Good piece, Rod. Thanks for it. I was particularly interested in Cameron’s role with CAIMAW in Trail. I was a charter member of the fledgling Canadian Workers’ Union before CAIMAW subsumed it and got a union baptism by fire when the CWU kicked off the raid against back in early 1970s. I’ve been refreshing my memory lately as I finish the concluding chapter of my PhD thesis on the smelter city, 1935-1955. Again, thanks for this insider look at current goings-on at the teachers’ bargaining table. Cheers! Ron

    • Gosh, i didn’t know you were one of Doug Swanson’s boys in Trail…the first “raid” by the CWU signed up about two-thirds of the work force, but a shameful decision by the Socred-appointed LRB denied them a vote on a technicality. Then Liberal leader Pat McGeer was among many outraged by the ruling, which saved Steel’s bacon. CAIMAW had a much tougher slog. wow, great thesis….i love Trail and its lore. My Swede-Finn immigrant grandfather worked there one summer in 1930 or thereabouts. The whole town, with smelter, is like a movie set. Thanks, Ron!

      • The “technicality” was that CAIMAW did not reach the legislated statutory threshold of support to get a vote. Cameron was certainly aware of that requirement as it was acknowledged in the CAIMAW campaign material. You have been influenced by CAIMAW’s subsequent theatre which was used to justify the expensive failure of the raid.

      • ..the technicality refers to the first CWU raid, long before CAIMAW’s raid

  7. Super column Rod – bring back labour reporters!
    Roger

  8. Fascinating stuff, this. Once upon a time I also was fairly well acquainted with Peter Cameron and like others had a high opinion of his intellect and what I’ll call his ‘cool’. Even in light of current circumstances it is hard to let go that memory of him. I can think of a few people—not many—who who have managed to navigate an extreme left-to-right path but I can’t recall anyone who surpasses Peter in this regard. It is difficult to fathom it. Perhaps the key point Rod makes is that Cameron was always more of an intellectual than a genuine working-class guy. I can’t believe that’s it’s simply about the money he’s being paid. Still, it is hard to reconcile the fellow who would go to the wall for CAIMAW members with the guy who so wholeheartedly delivers Socred—er, BC Liberal—doctrine in its dealings with BC teachers.

    • I would agree it’s not simply about the money….I think he likes advising the government and being listened to….kind of an ego thing….Still, it is also a fact that the money is pretty good…

      • in retrospect, i shouldn’t refer to the money thing….good people are allowed to work for the government, with its high per-diems….and I dont really believe Peter Cameron is in it for the money…it’s just one of those nice jollies that comes with working for the government…

  9. Way back in the day, our Petey, tried to take out Bob Williams in a nomination brawl in the old Van East riding. Really! Not apropos of anything, his missus, Lisa Hansen, a former lro at the LRB was one of 20 folks to share in a big lotto win with other LRB staffers. Her cut was 1.2 million so maybe that helped Petey leave the plebes behind. Your mother must be proud!

    • oh, so it was Lisa Hansen who won big in the lottery. I’d heard his wife had had some sort of win, but thought it might have been his previous partner.

  10. I wonder what Peter’s old winger, Jess Sucamore, would think of all this?

    • I recently talked to Jess for the first time in years….he, of course, is no fan of Peter Cameron…the two were not the best of friends, when Cameron left CAIMAW…the rupture was quite deep and bitter

    • I’m a little slow in answering but working with Jess and another highly principled labour leader of the time Madeline Parent let me assure you they were never completely convinced of Peters self-proclaimed worker principles but made use of his legalize mind. Jess’s mantra “always stick to your principled positions and you can’t lose”, kept Jess from truly embracing Peter’s principles as Peter tried to break-up CAIMAW in 83. Both Madeline’s and Jess’s obits should read they were right.

  11. In the “where are they now” category, Cameron’s close associate during the Trail raid by CAIMAW was Peter Burton – now “special Adviser” in the Ministry of Health.

  12. I don’t recall Burton being that involved in the CAIMAW raid, but i think you were there, John, weren’t you? Anyway, he too, left CAIMAW along with Cameron, with bitterness on both sides….and ended up on the management side of the table….he’s also an adviser to the private long term care people, helping them keep the unions down, or at least he was….hadn’t heard he was now a “special adviser” to the health ministry….i remember both these guys being such militant trade unionists….but both were also intellectuals, so i’m sure they have found ways to rationalize their abandonment of the union movement…….still, Burton led the amazing wildcat strike at Kitimat in 1976….

    • Ken Georgetti and I were the full time executive officers of the USW Local at the time. Cameron was the lead organizer on the ground for the duration of the raid but Burton was involved to a lesser extent. Burton has been at Health for almost 10 years.

      But I don’t think we should get too distracted by the hired guns, when it is the shot-callers who are the source of the problem. (As you point out, Cameron was also involved in negotiating fair agreements in health during the NDP’s tenure). Christy just can’t hide her contempt for teachers and the demands of their work. I was once a guest on her talk show on the topic of unpaid overtime and I’ll never forget her incredulous reaction when I cited several research studies that showed teachers worked more unpaid overtime than workers in any other occupation. I offered her copies, but she didn’t seem all that interested…

      • I remember there being a lot of grumbling from the CAIMAW ranks about the raid role Cameron gave to Donna, his wife at the time….I know Sue Vohanka spent a lot of time there for the raid…You’re right, of course, Cameron doesn’t control the purse strings, but he has willingly embraced his role of booting the boots to the teachers, those noble folks who teach our kids and help prepare them for life ahead…and as i said in the blog, the govt holds all the cards….there’s not much the teachers can do, which doesn’t mean they’re angels, but the deck is stacked against them…..i remember the time when I was covering the raid, Georgetti saw me on the street with a CAIMAW hat on, which i’d put on for a joke during a dinner with the raiders, and forgot I still had it on….yikes…I also remember Georgetti being very energetic, which impressed me, and his “checkered” history….hadn’t he quit or something, and came back just for the raid? ah, the good old days….

      • No, Ken hadn’t returned for the raid, but he had only recently become President of the Local following the resignation of his predecessor.

        And you are right about the grumbling within the group of CAIMAW supporters about Cameron’s leadership at the time, although as I recall, they complained mostly about his autocratic and sometimes condescending style.

    • Peter Burton informs me he has never worked for any of the residential care associations, profit or non-profit….glad to correct the record!

      • Hey Rod, so what is Burton up to these days, as a CAIMAW activist during those heady days let me assure that like Peter Cameron, Burton was also a master at intellectuallizing political correctness. I think it was very difficult for the core labour lefties to equate Burton’s “Fidel-esque” speeches from the balconies of Kitimat square with his right wing idealogy .Caimaw used Burton for his skills but he never made it inside. Sue Vohanka on the other hand was a young intelligent bright-eyed labour believer with her heart and mind in the union movement. What-ever happened to Cathy Walker after she retired, you can bet she hasn’t sold-out to the anti-worker government. Keep up the good work , by-the way CUPE is at least trying to involve the young worker population. I’m almost 70 now still a believer. Good-luck.

  13. Fascinating, and disturbing article–and great comments. I am from Windsor, Ontario and unions marked my childhood. I can’t help but love labour and the union movement. I can’t help but think, however, that the sun has set somewhat. Occupy Vancouver moved me, however. I wonder what the way forward is for unions in BC. How modern unions can fight the complacency of workers? How do you get various unions working together? With governments throwing a spanner in bargaining with announcements around Air Canada, postal issues, trucking, etc., I would be curious to see a blog on how unions need to function in the future. It’s not like there’s no reason to organize anymore–I was reading an economist analysis in McQuaig’s The Trouble with Billionaires who was saying the rich today are exponentially richer than they were in any other time in recorded history.

  14. Pingback: time to revive the old blog | Bulletin Bored

  15. It’s interesting from a late August point of view to see the expectations of a legislative end to this dispute. That’s what I expected when I voted to strike. But clearly the government is determined to leave the union out until it crumbles.

    • The premiers actions since 2001 made it quite obvious her disdain for the public school system. Her appointment of old” ban the books Fastburner” was a clear indication of the direction she was headed, add to that the appointment of peter Cameron the dye was cast. Destroy The Union by whatever means necessary and destroy the credibility of the public school system. If her attempt fails she’ll feed her two front men to the dogs.

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