Regina’s water plant battle shows the power of labour-bashing

by Paul Dechene

The word “union,” when it’s used in the context of organized labour, carries a lot of baggage these days — most of it bad. If you want to discredit a social movement or cause, or a protest of any kind, mention its connection to the labour movement and it’ll become an object of suspicion and scorn.

Sure, there are still some people who recognize unions as a power for good with a track record for protecting workers’ rights and backing success stories such as medicare and safety regulations. But in the wider public imagination that’s revealed on news channel round tables, in calls to talk radio and in Twitter feeds and blogs, the word “union” is a credibility killer almost as powerful as “hippy.”

How the hell did this happen?

The Council of Canadians, the country’s largest citizen organization, has often been an ally to organized labour and thus has witnessed up close how unions have been tarred and feathered by media, government and right-wing think tanks.

“I think since the mid to late 70s there’s been a concerted effort to vilify labour because labour really is the counterbalance to capital,” says Scott Harris, the Council of Canadians’ prairie regional organizer. “They’re the voice for workers, and if you can weaken the voice for workers then corporations can do the things they want to do. Which is make as much profit as they can.”

That all rings true. But it doesn’t fully explain the visceral, fanatically negative reaction that the mere mention of unions can provoke even from ordinary folk who’ve nothing to gain from union busting.

In One Market Under God, Thomas Frank — a Harper’s columnist, a historian of economics and a founding editor of The Baffler magazine — wonders about this too. He looks at the New Economy that rose to prominence in the 1990s and how the culture of the time rebranded the corporate world as the natural home of the common people while the union movement became the domain of brutes.

“What is most fascinating here is the specific kind of brute that union supporters are said to be,” writes Franks. “They’re not ‘Communists’ or ‘philistines’ as they were in the past — they’re automatons, people lacking agency of their own, empty vessels filled with the will of others.

“Treating workers in such a manner has obvious tactical advantages — it excuses one from taking their ideas seriously. But it also reflects one of the most basic assumptions of New Economy culture: Union workers are believed to be automatons because they act outside the market. For business and economic thinkers of the 90s, this was dangerous stuff. Only when people act within the marketplace, such thinkers told us, do they act rationally, choose rightly, and make their wishes known transparently. Only then could business give us what we wanted, cater to our freely expressed choices. Markets are where we are most fully human; markets are where we show that we have a soul. To protest against markets is to surrender one’s very personhood, to put oneself outside the family of mankind.”

So, we’re living in a time when everybody is either a participant in corporate culture or hoping to be one. None of us would dare to identify as brute labourers who could threaten all that. No, we’re freelancers and managers, engineers, creatives, specialists, day-traders, entrepreneurs, Youtube media moguls, maverick bloggers, critics, content providers.

If not that, we’re one lottery ticket or reality show win away from being self-made tycoons. Even us journalists are degreed professionals these days instead of blue-collar hacks tethered to a typewriter.

No wonder that union card and the people who carry them seem so… uncool.

But then again, maybe in this post-Crash, post-America age, some of that radical, union chic might make a surprise comeback.


If you’re looking for an example of the kind of smear campaign that follows organized labour around whenever it gets involved in political discourse, you have to look no further than current efforts to force Regina city council to reverse a plan to use a public-private partnership to build a new waste water sewage treatment plant.

And as you’d expect after reading how union supporters are seen as soulless automatons, the suspicions being raised about union activity in the vote are inspired by this notion of “layers of control”.

Regina Water Watch is the group behind the “Yes” side in the upcoming referendum — that is, the group saying “No” to a P3 and “Yes” to a tradition Design Bid Build model for the plant project — and they have received considerable support from the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

Meanwhile, in speeches to council and in interviews with the media, John Hopkins, CEO of the Regina and District Chamber of Commerce, continually points to CUPE’s involvement with the campaign as though the union is some kind of shadowy puppet master.

“It’s not so much that CUPE’s supporting it, it’s that it’s called Regina Water Watch, and when we look at the other Water Watches throughout the country, it’s really CUPE,” says Hopkins. “I think people need to know that this is the largest public sector union in Canada that’s involved and I think that people should know that and that they have an agenda across the country and they’ve been doing this across the country. And I think that’s a fair comment.

“It’s not a shock to anybody that CUPE would be interested in the workers that they represent, there’s no real surprise there. Our big concern is, it’s talked about as if it’s a grass roots movement when the reality is it’s not.”

The question that’s being implied here is, how much is CUPE National pulling Regina Water Watch’s strings?

Whether or not CUPE and RWW’s concerns about the P3 model are right or wrong are immaterial. An air of wrongness can be attached to Regina Water Watch just by suggesting that a union is guiding them.

So I had to ask them: is CUPE calling the shots at Regina Water Watch?

“No, we’re not. We are providing support for the campaign. But there is a community coalition, it’s their campaign and we are definitely providing help, but we are not running the campaign,” says Janet Szliske, a communications representative for the union who’s been working with RWW during the petition drive and now in the lead up to the referendum.

And Jim Holmes, the main spokesperson for RWW, agrees that CUPE’s role has been logistical and financial support.

“We have lots of discussions, we’ve had lots of support from CUPE, particularly around research. They paid for the Mackenzie Report. It was done for RWW but [CUPE] paid him. They paid for the advertising. And they do a lot of printing for us,” says Holmes.

“In terms of influence, the committee is made up almost entirely of community volunteers and so the decisions are made by that group,” he continues. “We tend to listen to the recommendations of CUPE about what is effective advertising or what are effective messages. But those are set by the group.”

As for how much CUPE has spent on their campaign, Szliske says she doesn’t have that information.

“I couldn’t even give you an estimate right now,” she says. “Certainly less than the city is spending, I can tell you that.”

Holmes does note that CUPE has been involved with RWW right from its formation. The group came together after a talk by Maude Barlow that the union sponsored. And CUPE Local 21 president, Tim Anderson, chaired their first meeting.

“[Anderson] said, ‘[CUPE] can give you some money, we can give you some support, but this won’t work if it’s our program. You guys have got to take this on and do it.’ And so then, people organized themselves and did it,” explains Holmes.

And it isn’t really surprising that CUPE wouldn’t want to take point on this campaign, considering the way even their arms-length involvement is being spun. The nature and extent of CUPE’s association with RWW has never been a secret and yet the city and the Chamber of Commerce have begun referring to the Yes campaign as “CUPE’s campaign”, as if that alone calls its legitimacy into question.

Granted, considering the public animus towards organized labour, it may be tactically sound to rebrand the “Yes” side as the “Big Labour” side, but by erasing the Regina Water Watch name, the city and Chamber ignore the majority of people in RWW who have no CUPE affiliation but are still concerned about a public-private partnership having control over the waste water sewage treatment plant.

It subsumes their efforts into the actions of some trade union bogeyman and treats them as though they are dupes — automatons in the service of some distant CUPE master.

Speaking of, I interviewed CUPE national president Paul Moist and asked him about the way that trade unions get vilified every time they enter into a political battle.

“I’m not surprised by the rhetoric from our opponents, but I take more comfort from the fact that CUPE seems to be a lot closer to public opinion here than Regina city council,” he says.

“I think there’s an element of ‘silence all dissenters’ and I think you’ll see Prime Minister Harper move more in the direction of silencing the union movement under the guise of union’s shouldn’t use members dues for political action purposes.

“It is something that we have to [deal] with more today than we did in the past, which tells me maybe we’re doing our job and ruffling some feathers.”


Researchers Gotta Research

In their pitches to voters, both the city and Regina Water Watch are saying follow the money. The city points to a report by Deloitte saying that with the $58.5 million we’ll get from the P3 Canada Fund, we’ll save upwards of $80 million over the 30 years of the project. The experts that Regina Water Watch and CUPE turn to argue that the federal funding won’t offset the added costs of private borrowing and the need to build in a profit margin.

But in a world where anything that comes from a union is suspect, the question is, why should we trust anything that comes from a report paid for by CUPE?

University of Manitoba economist, John Loxley, wrote Asking the Right Questions: A Guide for Municipalities Considering P3s for CUPE, and he’s highly critical of the P3 model. But is he a stooge for Big Labour?

“I like to see myself as an objective researcher,” he says. “I’ve put a lot of time into studying these things. Probably more than most. I’ve been doing this now for 15 years or more. I have studied whatever I can get my hands on in terms of business cases.”

He also notes that unlike reports from Deloitte and surveys by various Chambers of Commerce, his work is peer reviewed.

“My 2010 book [Public Service, Private Profit], that was peer reviewed. I’ve had articles since then in different places, including in books, all peer reviewed. I genuinely believe there are serious problems with P3s. And some are better than others but by and large I think the whole thing is questionable in terms of public finance.”

Loxley also questions the reliability of the research that the city is using.

“They may say that CUPE has a hidden agenda, but the consulting firms are heavily involved in P3s and it’s a highly profitable business and one has to look for their interests. And the fact is, that it’s very difficult to get their reports so you can asses them objectively.”

Meanwhile, CUPE also paid for a report from noted economics consultant Hugh Mackenzie that was highly critical of the Regina’s waste water sewage treatment plant P3. Why should any of that be trusted?

“This is actually just about the numbers,” says Mackenzie by e-mail. “And the numbers speak for themselves.  They say clearly that it will be more expensive to carry out the project through a P3 than through conventional procurement. More expensive by enough to more than offset the P3 tied funding from the Federal government.

“That’s not CUPE math or Hugh Mackenzie math. It’s just math.” /Paul Dechene