Bad year for labour

Dave Bartlett
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NDP leader reflects on the high points and low notes of 2010

NDP leader Lorraine Michael. — Photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram

NDP Leader Lorraine Michael says this past year will be remembered for three major reasons.

In a year-end interview with The Telegram, she said the departure of former premier Danny Williams, the destruction caused by hurricane Igor and strife on the organized labour front is what stands out for her.

Michael said Williams’ resignation turned the province upside-down politically.

“You can’t talk about the year without starting there,” she said. “With Danny as premier you just never knew what was going to hit you, and this year was particularly a year like that. Every time things would calm down, all of a sudden there’d be a new announcement.”

Michael said there was a lot of fluctuation in 2010 which created a sense of momentum.

“There’s a sense that there’s a lot going on, but when all is said and done, what really went on?”

While she touched on a number of low points, Michael also acknowledged a few high notes this year.

“The fact the doctors’ (dispute) finally … got resolved is great,” she said, but then qualified that by saying the impasse with the Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association should have been resolved months earlier.

“I don’t consider Muskrat Falls a high point,” Michael said of the signing of a term sheet to develop the Lower Churchill.

“It’s a proposal. It could go somewhere, (but) we have no idea where it’s going to go. It’s at such a tentative stage at this moment.”

Hurricane Igor was at the top of Michael’s bad-news list.

“Igor was more than a low point, it was a major disaster,” she said. “I still feel a lot for the people on the Burin and Bonavista peninsulas who were affected.”

Igor brought out the best in people, Michael said, but it also showed a real weakness in emergency planning.

She said the province should have declared a state of emergency for those two hardest hit regions instead of leaving that up to individual municipalities.

If that happened, Michael feels the “provincial wheels would have kicked in more quickly.”

“Especially because you had places like Trouty, which aren’t even local service districts,” she said.

Another sour note for Michael was the closure of the School for the Deaf.

She believes there was an intentional plan dating back to the turn of the century, to slowly reduce enrolment at the school until the number of students was so low, the province could justify its closure.

“I really am angry and appalled by the way in which the (education) minister has been deliberately misleading the public,” Michael said.

The NDP leader called 2010 the year of consultations, which she said gave an impression that the province was engaged with what people had to say.

“But you don’t see policy coming out that shows that they really are realizing there’s a whole group of people in the province that aren’t benefitting, and that we have a lot of needs that aren’t being taken care of,” said Michael.

In spite of things looking good economically, and the continued growth of the offshore oil sector, Michael said the gap between rich and poor is widening.

She said that’s evident by the fact that more people in the province are turning to food banks.

Michael said the social safety net is full of tears and rents.

“We still don’t have a home-care program, we still don’t have any advancement with regard to this government showing it believes in a child-care program,” she said.

Most of the lows Michael spoke of involved labour, including a price dispute in the fishery which delayed people from hitting the water to make a living.

“I was really disturbed by what happened with regard to the crab pricing,” she said. “The plant workers, in particular, the harvesters, too, were being held hostage by the processors.”

Michael feels there were “games that were played” by the processing side of the industry, but she was encouraged by legislation introduced in the House of Assembly this fall to try to remedy disagreements on seafood prices which have plagued the fishery over the last few years.

“With Danny (Williams) as premier you just never knew what was going to hit you, and this year was particularly a year like that. Every time things would calm down, all of a sudden there’d be a new announcement.” Lorraine Michael

“It’s been a bad year for labour relations, it really has,” she continued.

“It’s great that we’ve come to the end of the year and all of a sudden two major labour disputes have been taken care of.”

 But she said the fact that both disputes — with physicians and with job coaches on the Burin Peninsula — were taken care of so quickly, it suggests they could have been resolved before.

Michael pointed out there are still three ongoing labour disputes, including a strike at the Voisey's Bay mine in Labrador, which is now more than a year old.

She believes if the province introduced anti-replacement worker legislation, that dispute would also be over.

“Vale is known to be a company that does not want unions. It is doing its best to break the union up in Labrador,” said Michael.

“I think that it’s a real blight on this province that we have these workers going into a second Christmas on strike up there. It’s absolutely disgraceful — while that company continues to produce and make a fortune off the mine. That’s the issue, and if we had anti-scab legislation they would not be able to do it.”

Michael said in Quebec and British Columbia, where they have such legislation, there are fewer, shorter strikes.

“The government is just going to have to bite the bullet and do it if it wants to show it really cares about the workers in this province,” she added.

Michael contends the government is hiding behind the fact it is consulting with business and labour groups on the proposed legislation.

“The president of the Federation of Labour has formally (written this) government twice saying we want anti-scab legislation,” she said.

The business community might have to be pulled in, screaming and yelling,” Michael added. “But this government has never backed down before … (when it’s) something they want to do.”

Michael also referred to the strikes at the Purity factory and Metrobus in St. John’s.

If there was a silver lining hiding in the dark clouds of 2010 for Michael, it was at the party level.

“A high point for me was our showing in the last two byelections,” she said.

The NDP came second behind the governing Tories in the districts of Topsail in March and in Conception Bay East-Bell Island earlier this month.

“The byelections are a sign. I’m not dreaming it, they’re a real sign that people are starting to see us as the second choice after the government and that really is exciting for me,”  Michael said.

“We, as a party, have had a lot of growth (this year). A lot of activity ... on the west coast, in particular. We’re seeing a lot more young people becoming active in the party.”

Looking ahead, Michael hopes the province will finally introduce anti-replacement worker laws, as well as make significant legislation and investments on the social front.

“I don’t want visions around long-term care and home care. I want a concrete plan,” she said.

Michael would also like to see improvements at a new government department.

“I have been extremely disappointed in the slow way in which the new Child, Youth and Family Services Department has been moving,” she said.

She’s not optimistic the government will do anything about those issues before October’s election.

“I’m not expecting great things,” she said. “I’m expecting caretaking.”

Michael was pleased that 2010 is ending with women leading the province’s three major political parties, a first in Canadian history.

She hopes other women will be encouraged by that and consider a career in politics.

Organizations: Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association, School for the Deaf.She, Voisey Federation of Labour Youth and Family Services Department

Geographic location: Labrador, Quebec, British Columbia Conception Bay East-Bell Island

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Recent comments

  • grace ollerhead
    December 29, 2010 - 09:36

    I passed through the Wabush airport on Boxing Day and as expected it was nearly empty until some airplanes arrived and 50++ french males entered the airport enroute to somewhere on a smaller company plane. It sort of puzzeled me that there would be an all french labor force being moved around Labrador and I wondered about what project was importing so many out of province workers. I guess I now have my answer. I do not hold anti-Quebec sentiments and try to understand the historical oppression of Quebec citizens under Duplessis/catholic church followed by the separatist who beat the same drum that Quebecers will lose their language and culture if they vote for anyone but themselves.Duplessis used this same tactic to gain succesive terms.. it was anti-democratic then and it is anti-democratic now. As a Federation, and with respect, we must speak the truth to Quebecers and perhaps adopt their anti-scab legislation as we do so.

  • ChristmasSpirit
    December 28, 2010 - 08:49

    I wish I could pick up a paper and hear Ms. Michael say something positive about this province and how it works. Does she ever have anything good to say about the direction we are going or is she content to say what is wrong and provide no solutions? Maybe she should provide her plan and put a cost with what she thinks would solve the problems rather than spouting about what others have not done. Let me assure you Ms. Michael, the people of this province are not seeing you as the next alternative but rather see that there is no alternative at this point, and it really doesn't matter who finishes second in the bye-elections. Don't be fooled, no one remembers who finishes second anyway. The PCs wil still be in power after the next election, the Liberals will be second and your will keep your one or two seats ....Maybe!