PETER COMPARELLI, R.I.P.

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It has been a terrible year. Bowie and Prince taken far too early. Leonard Cohen leaving us to mourn and light candles against the dark. Long-time friends battling serious health issues. Fake news, the decline of newspapers and the mainstream media, more necessary than ever to hold governments and politicians to account. An antiquated electoral system, an FBI “announcement coup” against Hillary Clinton and Russian hackers delivering a sniveling, bullying, thin-skinned, shallow-thinking prima-donna with the attention span of a child to the White House, while the most adult of U.S. presidents takes his dignified leave. Terrorism in Europe. Aleppo. And now, to cap off this annus horribilis came news of the passing of Peter Comparelli, as lovely a person as there ever was in the tough, crazy world of journalism.

Beyond being a wonderful fellow and someone to enjoy a beer or five with, Peter had a special place in my heart, as the guy who took over my beloved spot on the labour beat at the Vancouver Sun. He thrived on it. A few years later, when I joined the rival Province as that paper’s labour reporter, thirsting to kick the slats out of the Sun’s coverage, I had a hard time harbouring any ill-will towards my good friend, Comparelli.

In fact, one of the best times either of us ever had on the beat was getting to cover the international convention of the Brotherhood of Teamsters in, where else, Las Vegas. We were both sent because it was a good local story. A band of feisty Vancouver dissidents had managed to get elected as delegates, and they were determined to raise the banner of reform against the organized thuggery of the big, bad, beefy Teamsters. If that embarrassed Vancouver’s own Senator Ed Lawson, the smooth, highly-paid presider over the Canadian section of the union and an international vice-president, all the better.

And they did cause a ruckus, most notably when feisty B.C. truck driver Diana Kilmury stood on the convention floor, braving the intimidating howls of several thousand male, mostly large, delegates, and denounced the Teamsters for all the criminal indictments amassed against their leaders. “I didn’t indict you,” Kilmury shouted into the mike. “But if the FBI has issued that many indictments, you must be up to something!” (In fact, then president Roy Williams was eventually sent to prison for his connections to organized crime. His prominent partner at the head table and successor, Jackie Presser, avoided going to jail only by dying of cancer.) But beyond all the great copy, and the fascination of seeing the Teamsters operate up close, with the ghost of Jimmy Hoffa hovering over them, it was a delight just to hang out in Vegas with Peter. We coughed up small amounts of money in the casinos (more by Peter, of course… ), bathed in the neon sun that banished night along the strip and spent our expense money. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Comparelli eventually moved on to cover the legislature. Then, to everyone’s surprise, off he went to sample the delights of life and journalism in Hong Kong, never to return. But, as the spontaneous outpouring of love and affection for Peter on the Pacific Press Facebook page attests, he was not forgotten in Vancouver, even after 30 years away.

Apart from his cracker-jack reporting, he was a union shop steward when those positions mattered, an exceptionally able catcher on the Sun’s competitive softball squad, teaming up with ace pitcher Kelly Evans to win so many games, and an embracer of the good times life had to offer, someone you were always glad to see. Former Sun reporter Debbie Wilson, who had decamped to Mexico, noted how grateful she was when Peter suddenly turned up, amid the ruins of the 1985 Mexico City earthquake. “He was dispatched by the Sun to cover the disaster and also to find me, as I was (unknown to me) MIA.” With an innate ability to love and attract women, he broke some hearts, it must be owned, until finally meeting his match and marrying Idy. At his wedding reception in Vancouver, I had never seen him happier and more assured that he was doing the right thing.

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He worked for Asiaweek in Hong Kong, was their correspondent in Kuala Lampur, became a skilled editor, then bounced around with other publications and jobs, till it became hard to keep track. But it was in Hong Kong where he was most remembered, a regular at the city’s legendary Foreign Correspondents Club, along with other refugees from the Vancouver Sun who washed up in Hong Kong. Der Hoi-Yin, Jake van der Kamp and the irrepressible Wyng Chow were particularly close. Peter’s last trip back to Hong Kong, from his permanent home in Penang, had been in May. But Wyng Chow had been in touch with him only a few weeks ago. Though a bit less chipper than usual, with his experimental anti-cancer drugs proving difficult to manage, Wyng said Peter talked of returning for yet another reunion. News of his death was a shock. He died, at 63, from lung cancer, surrounded by Idy and his three brothers.

Farewell, Peter. We loved you, man.

His Vancouver Sun obituary is here: http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/vancouversun/obituary.aspx?n=peter-comparelli&pid=183190212

And this affecting tribute from Tim Noonan of the South China Morning Post: http://www.scmp.com/sport/other-sport/article/2057942/editors-office-baseball-field-peter-comparelli-was-man-all-seasons

(photos courtesy of Wyng Chow and Der Hoi-Yin)

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TOUGH TIMES FOR PUBLIC SECTOR UNIONS

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These are strange days, indeed, for public sector unions. Big developments, not always happy ones, are everywhere. Yet the dearth of labour reporters and collective yawns from editors and the public alike have combined to shine relatively little attention on groundbreaking events that would have dominated front pages not so long ago, when unions were considered important.

These days, it’s all business, all the time. Employees struggling collectively to improve their lot in life, or even just to hang on to what they have, is so last century. Cue the top 10, top 50, top 100 lists of corporations and their powerful executives. Cue the latest real estate blip. Cue record bank profits. Now, that’s news!

In beautiful British Columbia,  a series of astonishing tentative agreements were signed this week, covering more than 50,000 government employees, to scant fanfare. They are like no contracts in the history of public sector bargaining in this province. Snore. Few, apart from the Vancouver Sun, seemed to notice or care. But let this aging, ex-labour hack drone on about why they are significant.

The new deals are a virtually unheard of five years in length. In return for all that labour peace, union members will receive a grand pay hike of barely one per cent a year.   Such are the tenor of the times, however, that one radio host nevertheless referred to them as “significant wage increases”.

Even more unusual, negotiations were concluded four months (!) before existing contracts were due to expire. That is certainly a first. Think of the savings on strike ballots….

And finally, there is the fascinating, added fillip of a bizarre, economic growth booster. The clause holds out the promise of top-up wage increases, should the B.C. economy suddenly roar to life, responding, no doubt, to Christy Clark’s unwavering belief:  If you close your eyes, click your heels and wish real hard, dreams can come true.

(I would have declared such a clause unprecedented, but a quick rummage through the legendary Mickle archives confirmed my hazy recollection of a similar pig-in-a-poke deal in a BCGEU contract from 1982. Called an “economy Image 4recovery formula”, it provided points for increases in productivity, government revenue and inflation. There were also points if unemployment went down. Enough points would trigger a mid-contract raise. The end result, after all the fancy pencil-work, was a big fat doughnut for the union.)

These contracts are in addition to an earlier, tentative landmark agreement involving 17,000 members of the Health Sciences Association, one of the province’s three major health unions. Terms are similar.

These lengthy, ultra-modest settlements, covering a quarter of the provincial public sector, will inevitably serve as benchmarks for other negotiations. Even though the more militant B.C. Nurses Union and the ever-tough B.C. Teachers Federation have yet to begin serious bargaining, the contracts, if approved, are a big coup for a government obsessed with keeping costs low.

Still, it’s not hard to understand why union negotiators in B.C. opted for these long, cheap deals. They represent security. There are no rollbacks. Elsewhere, public sector unions are under heavy attack, their benefits and pensions a target for many governments. it’s in keeping with the race-to-the-bottom attitude that seems to believe forcing wages and pensions lower will somehow boost the economy. Hello? Scrounging for pennies, er nickels, is the new reality.  Look around.

In oil-rich Alberta, where public sector strikes are already illegal, the government has moved to strip the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees of its right to binding arbitration, as well. Even more draconian is a provision making union leaders liable for large fines if they even call for a strike.

This throwback to the reactionary, anti-union days of W.A.C. Bennett  in British Columbia 50 years ago is brought to you by Premier Alison Redford. Yes, the same Alison Redford, who once worked with Nelson Mandela to improve human rights in Africa. “He taught me that the best advice comes from people who have been working in the trenches,” said Redford, on the great man’s death. Hmm…..

And in Ottawa, Treasury Board President Tony Clement continues his merry, anti-union way, with barely a squeak of public concern. At a recent meeting with Clement, Robyn Benson, head of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, asked for union consultation on the government’s plans to gut their bargaining rights. She also requested the minister stop Unknowncalling them “union bosses”, a pejorative term belying the fact labour leaders are democratically elected and responsible to their membership. Afterwards, Tony Clement, whose party recently voted to end mandatory union dues collection (a polite term for s right-to-work), tweeted that Benson wanted “co-governance with Parliament. Takes ‘union boss’ to a whole new level.” Thanks, Tony.

He is sponsoring legislation giving the government power to decide who can go and can’t go on strike. It would also compel arbitrators to bring in wage settlements based on the government’s “ability to pay”. So much for free collective bargaining, even for mild, federal unions who hardy ever go on strike.

The media has tended to characterize this as “a battle” with labour. It’s hardly a battle, when one side has all the guns and ammunition, and the other side little more than the right to say “We object”, as their forces are mowed down.

Welcome to the new reality. It’s a funny old world.