Sitting to rest in her workplace at the end of another day, Maryam Adrangi sighs when asked about the B.C. New Democrats’ snap election — and what its avowedly “labour friendly” government has done for rank-and-file workers like her.
Adrangi, a Grade 9 science and math teacher who lives in Vancouver, is a member of the one union that’s found itself most regularly at loggerheads with the government since New Democrats took office in 2017.
First, teachers bristled during contract negotiations, and even began strike planning in January. Most recently, they filed a complaint at the Labour Relations Board over being ordered back to school during the pandemic, arguing there are too few safety protections.
“We’re really throwing teachers into the line of fire,” Adrangi told The Tyee, from her classroom after the end of the classes Thursday. “It’s been a job mandated to go back, but the protections put into place to ensure the safety of teachers — and students — isn’t really there.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has opened up new — and old — chasms and demands across the labour movement. Paid sick leave has become essential if the poorest are to stay home when sick, and the public health implications of contract flipping and precarious employment in the health-care and seniors-care sectors has come into focus.
Workers’ health and safety has moved to the forefront of labour’s priorities, and it’s not just teachers.
Experts say the most precarious workers are the most likely to face the highest health risks from coronavirus and have the fewest health benefits — particularly gig-economy workers and self-employed contractors, and women, workers of colour and new immigrants working in sectors like retail, hospitality and cleaning.
But labour studies researchers also acknowledged the NDP have made some fairly significant reforms, such as boosting the minimum wage to $14.60, up from $11.35 in 2017, vastly increasing affordable child-care spaces and ending contract-flipping by subcontractors in some public sectors. And the party is promising more protections for precarious and gig-economy workers.
“The climate around labour has changed for the better,” said Kendra Strauss, director of Simon Fraser University’s labour studies program and an associate professor. “We’ve certainly seen some positive changes for labour.”
She listed “substantive investments” in public services such as health care and education, the minimum wage increases and reviews launched into reforming the Employment Standards Act, which sets minimum working conditions for non-union employees.
But those fall far short of what many unions want. Several who spoke to The Tyee said the government’s record may be acceptable but is certainly not stellar on labour issues, particularly on employment standards for the most vulnerable workers.
“The labour movement was probably hoping for some more robust improvements to employment standards in particular,” Strauss explained. “Some of our lowest-paid and most-vulnerable workers have not really seen their position improve.”
“Some of the big changes that parts of the labour movement had hoped for around things like sectoral bargaining have not materialized — really significant changes to our labour relations regime.”
Sectoral bargaining — as the BC Federation of Labour outlined in its submission to government budget consultations this year — could increase unionization rates in less-unionized sectors like fast food. Instead of having to organize and bargain based on individual outlets, workers could unionize as part of a broader unit with others in similar jobs, but different employers. Unions argue it “is a necessary step forward to address the growing precarious workforce in our province.”
Another workplace expert gave the NDP a barely passing grade.
“If I were to give them a grade as a professor, it would be around a C+,” said Christopher McLeod, co-director of the partnership for work, health and safety in the University of British Columbia’s School of Population and Public Health. “With room for improvement to get them to become an exceptional student.”
“They’ve made steps in the right direction, but a lot more could be done for them to act in a really meaningful way; I wouldn’t characterize them as particularly activist in the area of labour, or occupational health and safety.”
The crux of the problem for many unionists is what the NDP’s rivals would do in power.
“Their platform is more clearly articulate in these areas than the Green Party’s or BC Liberals’ are,” McLeod said.
And above all else, the biggest game-changer for ordinary workers could be on child care, he argued.
“Introducing affordable, accessible and universal day care is really critical for issues of equity,” McLeod said. “Encouraging women and other caregivers to be able to work in the workforce without creating financial barriers will be incredibly essential as we emerge from COVID-19 in the post-pandemic economy.”
As it has in the past, the BC Federation of Labour has endorsed the NDP, saying it led a government that “listens to working people.” President Laird Cronk reminded voters of the public service cuts and labour acrimony of the BC Liberals’ years in power.
“After too many years of being ruled by a party that governed only on behalf of the most wealthy and powerful,” Cronk wrote on Sept. 18, “British Columbians have had a chance to see what it’s like to have a government that listens to working people.
“And that government has made major progress for B.C. workers and families.”
One of the federations’ largest members, the BC Teachers’ Federation, insisted it is remaining neutral in this election and has not donated to the NDP. It’s instead focusing its advertising on “issues,” president Teri Mooring said in an interview.
“That makes us different from many other unions, some of which are partisan and sit on party executives — and it allows us as a union to be critical of government no matter who it is in power,” Mooring told The Tyee. “There are some things this government has done that are absolutely positive for the labour movement.”
She listed what she called “good decisions” at the Labour Relations Board, improvements to the Labour Code and including unions at the committee table to plan the economic restart during the pandemic.
“In some other jurisdictions in Canada, unions were not part of those conversations to inform or make better the restart plans,” Mooring explained.
But all has not been rosy between unions and the NDP. Mooring led the most significant union confrontation with the government, which was ultimately resolved, and a contract signed. But pre-pandemic, it was so bad that formal strike planning began.
“We were really surprised that we would be facing concessions under an NDP government — the first time we were able to bargain [class size and competition] that language after it was illegally stripped in 2001,” Mooring said. “It was a complete shock to us that instead what we faced by the employer was concessions, the complete removal of class composition and size language.”
Eventually, the province resolved the smoldering dispute, but Adrangi said seeing her union forced into bargaining table battles with the government that many activists had voted into power was disheartening.
“The NDP didn’t negotiate in good faith, that I think is the general consensus, that they felt they had the upper hand,” Adrangi said. “Professions like teaching and nursing are women’s work, and unions that are disproportionately folks of colour, new immigrants and women — we don’t get that same public sympathy.”
“Personally, I think they’re totally taking unions for granted, and totally riding that wave but not doing as much as they could and should.”
Where the parties stand
Here are some key areas experts identified that are among the labour movement’s priorities — and what the BC Liberals, NDP and Greens have promised to do about them.
The BC Liberals’ platform emphasizes helping workers by strengthening the economy — by supporting businesses, cutting the provincial sales tax and skills training investments — “to keep more people working,” the party says. It would increase pay equity reporting requirements for companies.
And it vowed to end the NDP’s “discriminatory, union-only procurement policies that have disqualified 85 per cent of contractors from building public infrastructure projects.” Those controversial community benefits agreements guarantee major government infrastructure projects employ under-represented groups and provide training for apprentices. Employees are required to join specified unions. The Liberals say the restrictions are unfair and increase costs.
An Andrew Wilkinson government would also invest more than $1 billion in child care, offering it at $10-a-day to households earning under $65,000, with higher incomes paying increasing amounts.
“We will get more people back to work and attract new investment in B.C.,” the BC Liberal platform vowed, “… keeping more people working and making our communities thrive again.”
The BC Greens, meanwhile, promised in their platform a permanent, independent Fair Wages Commission to recommend “consistent and predictable” minimum wage increases.
The Greens also focus social equity and safety nets, promising pay equity legislation so equal work gets equal pay, and a new task force “on modernizing employment standards and reducing inequality in modern employment relationships.”
They’d also offer free child care to “working parents” with kids under three years old.
“Many British Columbians were feeling left behind and left out of the benefits of our prosperity well before COVID,” the Green platform states. “Now, COVID is exacerbating existing inequalities in our society and expanding the number of people facing economic insecurity.”
Finally, a re-elected NDP government vowed it would finally bring about $10-a-day child care for all British Columbians, a previous election promise it had only partly implemented. (NDP leader John Horgan blamed the failure on resistance from his minority government’s Green partners, a claim that party’s leader Sonia Furstenau disputed in this week’s televised debate).
And Horgan promised to ramp up legal protections and rights for precarious workers such as those in the gig economy and contractors, including “developing employment standards targeted to precarious and gig-economy workers” and ensuring they, too, have the right to unionize like employees.
“B.C. workers are front-and-centre in our government’s new Economic Recovery Plan,” the NDP’s platform promises. “And we’ll continue to bring forward improved rights and benefits for all working people.
“In an economy that works for everyone, we must do everything we can to make sure workers earn a good livelihood, feel a sense of security in the work they do, and — above all else — stay healthy and safe in the workplace.”
SFU’s Strauss said memories of the BC Liberals’ treatment of workers while in power remains alive and many in the union movement see few alternatives to voting NDP if they want worker protections.
“There is an agenda that absolutely remains unfinished around improving the rights, terms and conditions of workers that were really undermined for a decade,” Strauss said. Those issues haven’t been discussed enough in the pandemic election campaign, she said.
“I would have really liked to see more of a debate…. They’ve been less central in the campaign.”
Strauss said it’s positive that all three parties have made child care central to their platforms, and their various ways of achieving affordable daycare have received attention on the campaign trail. That’s good for all workers, but especially women and more marginalized employees.
For Adrangi, the B.C. election is a reminder that governments can and do make a big impact in the life of workers like her — for better or worse.
But when it comes to employees’ rights, she said, rank-and-file union activism and solidarity will always be needed, no matter who is in power.
“We’re talking about how we’re undervaluing and under-utilizing the people of this province,” Adrangi said. “When it comes to electoral politics, the decisions we can push elected leaders on the best are the ones we’ve consistently organized around.”
“We can’t just wait until people are in power and tell them what we want them to do. We need to be a movement to demand what we need to see.”