Sunday, December 24, 2006

Labour Christmas dinner and the secretaries Santa Sinclair trampled with the reindeer hooves

Come Christmas Eve in Vancouver, you can generally count on three things. It will be pissing down rain, there will be pumpkin pie for dessert at the Labour Christmas dinner, and Jim Sinclair of the BC Fed will turn up at the dinner wearing a Santa hat. The pumpkin pie is the one I look forward too.

The annual Labour Christmas dinner is free so each year Vancouver’s underclass floods through the doors of the Maritime Labour Hall. Many arrive on a special City bus that departs every half hour from the Carnegie Centre and other spots on the Downtown Eastside. The destination sign on the front of the bus inoffensively reads, "Happy Holidays".

Tonight, there was a live band at the dinner with not a bad sound. A guy in the band announced that they were the "Precursor to Santa."

The dinner was hot, served out of steam trays by union people. The dressing was excellent this year; last year when it was doughy and looked a bit like slices of banana bread. The servers at the buffet table dishing the food onto people's plates were friendly, really warm.

Like every year, lots of women with children showed up, rough-talking women who yell at their kids a lot. "Classic lumpen", a friend of mine would say. Lots of people that you regularly see at Carnegie Centre also showed up. And of course the people who are fixtures at free food places all year long were there. There was enough food for 1100 people this year, a union guy said as he watched the line up of people filing in. "We'll keep serving 'til the food runs out".

Servers scurried around the floor of the hall too, some men but more women, all eager to hand you a piece of pumpkin pie off their tray, or a juice box or a mandarin orange, or get you a tea or a coffee with carnation evaporated milk. They were never the slightest bit gruff. Lots of goodwill. "The human side of human beings," was what the late American union organizer Harvey Jackins, who had sweated in front of brass knuckled goons, would call this.

Did I mention that Jim Sinclair was there? He wore the same Santa Claus hat that he wears every year, and a red sweater. He was schmoozing, not with the underclass so much; he was focusing more on union people, even hugging a few. “You dance,” as Brian Mulroney used to say, “with the lady what brung ya."

Every year I see Sinclair in his Santa hat and every year I think of the secretaries that allegedly got trampled under the hooves of his reindeer. In the 1990's, CUPE Local 116 at UBC was staffed exclusively with non-union secretaries. Pardon me, a secretary is now an "administrative assistant", just like Christmas is now the "holiday season". Two secretaries to two consecutive Presidents of this Local were fired after speaking up about working conditions as well as, in one case, repeated bouts of office rage by a CUPE Vice President. Other reasons were given, though, to justify the firing of these two secretaries, Kim S. and Ann S., the latter who had worked for CUPE for 12 years and had begun pressuring CUPE to keep what she claimed had been a verbal promise to provide her with a pension. She eventually sued CUPE for a pension.

An accountant who, unlike the secretaries, had been on contract for roughly a decade was fired after breast cancer made her less efficient. Again, that was not the reason given. Another secretary to the President, who often worked without benefits any union worker would expect, quit. She alleges that her health was damaged from performing double and triple workloads. But she left with a glowing letter of reference from Vice President Paul Cooke.

Jim Sinclair, President of the BC Federation of Labour, and Barry O'Neill, President of CUPE Regional, and other CUPE officials were sent a written summary of unfair labour practices to which these secretaries had allegedly been subjected, with a request that this issue be addressed. The secretary who signed the polite written material was shocked to discover that it had been turned over to the Vancouver Police as evidence – the sole evidence – that CUPE executives were victims of “criminal harassment”.

After being recruited by labour officials, VPD officers began an intimidation campaign at the home of this former secretary. It was made clear to her that she should never again write to labour officials about this issue. CUPE, she alleges, was sending a message not only to her but to her former co-workers not to pursue this issue. Police closed the case. "There had never been any evidence to charge me," says the secretary.

Shortly after police closed the case, Jim Sinclair was asked in writing by one of the secretaries to ensure that the letter addressed to him outlining unfair labour practices was expunged from VPD Property Office files. It was important to her that the BC Fed boss take that action to reassure women that pursuing concerns about labour conditions in a union office would not be considered a crime. Sinclair did not respond to the request, although his staff confirmed that he had received it, and has allowed the letter to remain in police files as evidence of wrongdoing. "Never once," says the secretary, "did Sinclair ever speak to me."

A copy of the documents in the VPD Property office as well as the police report was leaked to the Downtown Eastside Enquirer. A sort of early Christmas gift, one of those rare gifts that you know you can actually use.

More will be written about this case in the new year. Now is not the time. It’s Christmas.