Union Matters: NUPGE President Larry Brown Discusses Canadian Labour Issues

The President of the National Union of Public & General Employees (NUPGE) sits down with host Mary Otto to discuss his personal history with the organization and the labour movement; critical issues facing unions today, and much more!

Full transcript of podcast:

Hi, and welcome to the NSGEU podcast, Union Matters. My name is Mary [Otto} and I’m going to be your host today.

Today I’m really excited to have Larry Brown with me, the President of NUPGE, which is the National Union of Public & General Employees. Larry is just starting his second term as President, so welcome, Larry.

LB Thank you very much. Thanks for having me.

MO Would you mid telling us a little bit about who you are?

LB Let me place myself in the national union family first. The national union is NSGEU and the equivalents of NSGEU right across the country. So we have members in the BC Gov’t and Service Employees Union, and members in the Newfoundland Association of Public Employees and pretty much everyone in between except Quebec. Collectively we’re the second largest union in Canada with 400,000 members, which is pretty large. NSGEU is part of a big family of unions. And, if we do that right, it means that NSGEU doesn’t have to face it’s own issues by itself because we can bring to bear with experiences and strengths of other like unions across the country. I was privileged to be the secretary-treasurer of the national union for a number of years, and then when the president stepped down I moved into the position of president and I just got re-elected, which beats the alternative.

MO And I’m very happy for you because I’ve only heard good things about the work you do. I know you have a really close relationship with our President, Jason MacLean, and out First Vice-President, Sandra Mullen. They sit on the national board, don’t they?

LB They sit on the national board and they don’t just sit there, they play very active and positive roles, so I’m really impressed with both of them. You have good leadership here in Nova Scotia, for sure.

MO How did you get involved in the labour movement?

LB Actually, it was a bit of an indirect route. Most people get involved when they’re at a workplace and they’ve worked their way up. I kinda came in from the side. I graduated in university in Saskatchewan, which was my home province. The government changed and there was a new NDP government that was going to do some good things on labour law, so they asked me if I would join the Department of Labour, and I did. I stayed there for a few years and then was asked to join the Federation of labour in Saskatchewan. I stayed there for a few years. Then the Saskatchewan Government Employees Union (the equivalent to NSGEU) asked me to come on board as their Chief Executive Officer. I did that for a number of years, and then got elected as secretary-treasurer of the national union, and I’ve been in one role or the other with the national ever since.

MO So you’ve seen both sides, from the government perspective and the union side as well.

LB Fairly briefly from the government and I have to say to was atypical, because this was a progressive government that was elected after years of a not-progressive government. There was a whole bunch of very progressive changes introduced all at the same time and I was able to be part of that, including the first occupational health program in Canada that we set up. I actually wrote the first right to refuse unusually dangerous work. I wrote the first draft of it, so I’m kind of proud of that.

MO Yes, you should be proud of that! That is something more of our members need to know they do have the right to refuse unsafe work. There are so many unsafe workplaces out there and violence in the workplace is increasing. Having people have that knowledge that they shouldn’t be putting themselves in danger when they go to work is so important, so thanks!

LB You’re welcome. And the surprising thing now, after it’s been in place for a number of years is that before we passed that law it was very unclear. Employees could and did lose their jobs because the employer said you either do that or I’ll fire you. And if the person said I think that’s too dangerous to do, that didn’t really count. The unfortunate thing about that is in a union environment, we have the power to follow through on that, but for non-union workers, the law says they have that right, but it’s a lot more precarious. So, union protection is important even in exercising that kind of right.

MO It’s so important. And it’s important that we push back on things like the Westray Law, which I’m sure many of the people listening are very familiar with the Westray disaster, and out of that came a law where employers, if it’s unsafe, they should be charged criminally, but the fact of the matter is, nobody has actually gone to jail. And they should be. That needs to be worked on and changed, I think.

LB Absolutely. It’s criminal law, which is good because it covers the whole country. But as you say, the implementation of it is still lacking. We need to be more forceful. The notion that working people are at the disposal of the employer is really an antiquated notion, but it takes a long time to get rid of the last vestiges of that. It’s still too often the employer is all mighty and the employee’s job is to say yes sir, no sir, how high, sir.

MO What are some of the big things that the national union is working on?

LB There are quite a number at this point, unfortunately. One thing we found that is an important under-pinning of the work we do is that it’s very rare for an individual province in Canada to have a particular kind of problem that doesn’t show up somewhere else. Let me give you an easy example. Not that long ago you have the wage control legislation of zero, zero, three-quarters, and one and a half, I think it was. Within about a week that exact same legislation pattern showed up in Manitoba. We’re very aware of the fact that if a government in Canada does something that’s negative towards it’s work force, we have to be aware there’s no borders high enough to keep that within that province. We’ve had that experience over and over again. Years ago there was a government that said we’re going to save money by forcing all public sector workers to take every second Friday off without pay. That leapt from Manitoba to Newfoundland within a week. The idea that somehow, Nova Scotia has problems, but we don’t have to worry about what’s going on in Ontario or BC, that’s never true. The bad experiences transcend borders very quickly. So we are, in many senses, in this together. We’re dealing with austerity programs, with cuts, very right-wing governments in province after province. But then we’re also dealing with a number of things that flow out of that, in a sense. We’re dealing with climate crisis, which effects all of our members, but it also effects a number of our members who are on the front-lines of climate crisis. If you look at a wind storm or flood, there’s a number of people who are leaving that place and a smaller number that are going to it. The smaller number that are going to it, some of those are our members. They’re going to the front lines to help out: EMS and healthcare workers and so on. Climate change is a big issue. The climate crisis is a big issue. We’re talking increasingly now about the fact that our members, who have better than average jobs (not great, but better than non-union work) they still can’t afford a place to live. They can’t afford housing, they can’t afford rent in many cities. That’s an issue for us.

MO That’s a big issue here in Halifax. I think the occupancy rate are under 2%. It’s really hard. There’s a crisis in affordable housing. It’s been in the media every day. We’re in a crisis and we don’t have affordable housing. It effects our members. Our members are working with people trying to find affordable housing and they can’t find it. People are ending up on the streets. There’s something people have been calling renovictions. They kick everyone out of the apartment building, renovate it, and then the rent get jacked up.

LB It’s a bigger crisis than we understood up until a few months ago. We knew that buying a house was getting to be impossible for a whole cadre of people across the country, working or not. The idea that people could grow up, move to the city, and buy a house, or stay in their same city and buy a house with their parent’s help, is not possible anymore. It’ in Vancouver, Toronto, Winnipeg, pretty much everywhere. What we found out more recently is it’s not just about buying a house. If you don’t have enough money to buy a house, then you have to rent. We found out increasingly that our members can’t even afford rent.

MO It is astounding to me how much rent has gone up since I’ve been a renter. I don’t know how people do it.

LB In some cases they actually don’t. What people do increasingly is that they have a long commute to get to work, because the further out from the city centre, the relatively less expensive, but that means your lifestyle is a mess because you’re not only working a 7-8 hour day, you’re taking an hour to get there, and hour to get home. In Vancouver an hour and a half is not that rare for travel time. On top of that you have people living in very unsatisfactory conditions. Rental housing can be overcrowded and not well maintained and all the things people put up with. We are a very wealthy country. The wealth is not shared equally enough, but there’s a ton of money in Canada. Canada, in the last 20 years, has doubled the size of our economy and yet people are not sharing in the accumulated wealth of the country anymore, not well enough. We’ve got income problems, we’ve got housing problems, we’ve got health problems, all related to the fact that income and equality is a staggering problem for us.

MO To me it’s a moral and ethical issue that we have some of the richest people in the world, we’re one of the richest countries, and yet the blame is being put on the most marginalized people in society and the poorest people in society. It’s not just a matter of being able to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and you can pay off your debt, it is almost impossible once you fall into that debt to actually get out of it.

LB We’ve had a number of stories lately about governments and advisors to governments expressing concern about the increasing debt-load that Canadians have. I think to myself, if you haven’t been able to negotiate a wage increase of any significance… The really powerful unions have been able to hold the line and not lose ground, a lot of people who aren’t in powerful unions have lost ground. If the cost of living is going up and up and up and we’re barely holding our own, why would we not be seeing a debt increase? Why would people who are struggling to find a home not have to go into debt? If the wages are not keeping pace with the cost of living or the wealth of the country, debt is going to be the result. Health issues are going to be the result. Homelessness is going to be the result. These things are all, unfortunately, relatively predictable. If governments do grapple with them, they tend to grapple with them too often as isolate – let’s deal with this problem over here and then tat problem over there. And fundamentally, the problem is the mal-distribution of income in our country.

MO I think the number one indicator of poor health is poverty. And all of these issues are so intrinsically tied together, we really do need to work on it on a national level. It’s very easy to think, oh, we’re in this alone in Nova Scotia, and the [notion that] the Maritimes are have-nots and a drain on society, when actually we are quite beneficial to the rest of the country. The trends are right across the country. It’s happening coast to coast and I think it’s why – I know that the premiers sit and talk to each other, so that’s why I’m so glad that our sister unions across the country are sitting down to talk out how to push back.

LB And the other components of NUPGE represent the exact same mixture of people that you do. There are people who work in liquor stores and who work in corrections and health care and social services and all of the multiplicity of jobs that your folks have. We could probably hold a national meeting a week of different occupational specialties and we would be just scratching the surface, because there are such similarities across the country. The good part is they are similar. We can learn from each other. We can share our strengths. We can figure out if you guys make a move forward in NS, like your huge victory in health care restructuring of a few years ago, where you beat the government back, the rest of us can learn from that. We share our victories, we share our struggles, and we share our strengths when it comes to dealing with those issues.

MO It’s pretty awesome. I’ve gone to some national meetings with my counter-parts in Canadian Blood Services and I know NUPGE has been involved, chairing those meetings and I found it so useful to help me come back and see what’s going on with my counter-parts across the country and giving ideas going back to the local. It’s even nice just knowing you’re not in it alone. Or to see it’s not that bad here yet and I can get prepared.

LB We have a difficult time having an unsuccessful meeting, because, in any situation where people are within their province and they get a chance to talk to people doing the same job across the country, it’s always such an eye opener and so exciting. Then we get pressured to have that meeting again, and meanwhile we have 500 other categories we’re trying to get to. It’s a nice problem to have. They’re always successful for those very reasons. Finding out that people have the same issues, that it isn’t unique to NS. That other people may have solved it. I like your point that sometimes it’s nice to find out that it’s worse elsewhere.

MO It’s also scary to find out something’s worse because I feel like there is a shift in the country and frankly, politics in the world. It seems to be such an attack on unionized workers, on public services. There needs to be push back. I am feeling hopeful when I’m seeing some push back.

LB You’ve identified a serious, profound question, which is, there are a lot of bad governments in the world right now. It’s certainly not something that Canada owns. There’s a thing called the Overton’s Window, which says that at any given time there’s a framework within which you can have debates so that if you go to far this way you’re on the goofy left side and if you go too far that way you’re on the goofy right side. What’s considered acceptable debate has really shifted. That whole window has shifted far to the right, so we are now talking about stuff that 20 years ago would have been goofy on the right. So, that is a big problem. We’ve got three or four governments in Canda right now that are occupying the extreme right wing and basically being very pro-business and making no bones about the fact that they don’t represent working people, they represent business interests. On the other hand, around the world there is increasingly the sense that people are meeting that ultra-right with really strong resistance. People are saying, we thought maybe you were giving us a sensible alternative, but what you had to offer is nothing more than more pain and more cuts and less of the quality of life that we want, so get out of our way. We want a government that’s going to work for us.

MO I think it’s we really important that we have as many rights as we have and we have the ability to elect a government and hold out politicians accountable. I personally will go and meet with my MLA and MP, and I think more people need to do that. It says something when you go and speak to your politician who’s representing you and hold them accountable.

LB I agree, but one of the things that gives you the ability ot do that is the fact that you’re part of a big, powerful collective bargaining organization. You’ve got that backing. One of the things I’m continually aware of these days is that unions are in a privileged position because we have that collective strength. We have the strength of each other. We don’t have to stand against these things by ourselves. We can stand with our fellow union members. There’s so many working people facing all the issues you and I have been talking about without that support. They’re having to face it alone. Our job is to make sure they’re not made to stand out there by themselves. That we work for them as well.

MO It’s something we need to do and have done is help all working people. I want to make life better for all working people.

LB You’re right, that has been part of the culture of the Canadian union movement. One of the reasons unions in other countries have been pushed back harder than we have is because unions in other countries have lost that sense of responsibility to people. We’ve always been supportive of women’s groups and connected with community progressive organizations. The unions who forget that sense of responsibility to making our communities, provinces, world better end up paying for it in the long run. They lose the support and strength.

MO It’s also important because the government and people in power like to attack the union – what is the union actually doing for the community, but when you can show we do things for our communities…and frankly we are the community. The majority of people in rural communities–a lot of the good jobs are the unionized jobs. Having a living wage, they’re not going crazy going away and spending the money elsewhere. They’re helping keep that community going. I tend to shop a local shops and that’s where I spend my money. Having a decent wage is helping more than just me. I’m putting that money into the community.

LB If you look at the concentrations of wealth in Canada, they are not contributing as much to the local economy as people who work in the community. If you’re wintering in Florida or jetting off to Europe, you’re not contributing to the local economy. It’s you’ve got billions of dollars there’s a limit to how many houses you can sensibly buy. If you’ve got three houses you’re not going to buy ten more fridges, but you spread that wealth out with all the people who work for the government, all the unionized employees, there’s a huge boost to the local economy. All of your transaction are in you local economy. But going back to governments pushing against unions. Everything we’ve talked about is related to that, because unions are the most organized and strongest opponents to that kind of politics. The wealthy politics of working for business only, the politics of austerity, the politics of cutting ordinary people. Unions are the strongest part of the resistance to that and governments see that. And they say, well, if we can weaken unions, if we could get unions out of the way, then our ability to implement this right-wing agenda would be that much stronger.

MO There really is power in the union. Thank you so much for coming in a talking to us.

LB I’ve enjoyed this, thank you for having me.

MO We’ll have to get you back the next time you swing through town. Thank you for all the work you do, we really appreciate it. It’s important for people to know there are people out there working for NS and our members.

LB Thank you for that

MO Make sure you subscribe to the podcast and tune in next time. If you have any comments or ideas for upcoming episodes, make sure to get in touch with the Communications staff or on the Facebook page.

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