September 24, 2013

In the battle to stop EI attack, French-speaking communities rise up

Occupation of a New Brunswick Service Canada office
Special feature report,
Rebel Youth Magazine

As public pressure against the Harper Conservative government's recent Employment Insurance (EI) reforms continues this fall, labour and community activists move forward with one of the more dynamic and united union-led fightbacks Québec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia have seen in recent years, this special feature of Rebel Youth magazine reports, which appears in the October 1st issue of People's Voice Newspaper.

While a protest movement against the EI cuts has developed over the past year in response to a "double round" of EI cuts effecting the whole country, they've spread like wild-fire especially across French-speaking Acadien and Québécois cities and towns, and even villages.

This is because the double round of attacks to EI by the Harper Tories after the 2012 federal budget is disproportionately impacting workers in seasonal industries. It is a reality linked with long-standing questions of the economic underdevelopment across Canada and social inequalities faced by the French-speaking national communities.

Three tiers

The first round of cuts to the federal EI programme were implemented in January, when Service Canada divided the unemployed into three "tiers" or categories of "users" - based no longer just on paid experience in the workforce (not `under the table' work), but also experience with collecting EI.

Workers with no history of collecting EI make tier one, "repeat occasional users" fit into tier two, while "regular users" are tier three. Workers' ability to launch appeals was also effectively scaled-back, and special measures for seasonal economies have been unilaterally cancelled.

EI harder to get

The cuts push those who have needed EI before, or remain unemployed for longer than a few months, to accept any work they can find - even if it is 70% lower than their previous pay and an almost an hour drive (one-way) from the worker's home.

The second round, implemented in April, drastically reduces eligibility for EI. As Toronto Star columnist Carol Gore wrote (April 10), "the essence of this change is that the government has pushed the threshold to qualify for the most generous form of EI treatment out of reach for most Canadians."

Even before the cuts, maximum weekly benefits had shrunk from $604 in 1996 to an average of just $335 per week in 2012. Less than 40 per cent of unemployed workers, and even fewer women, actually qualify for EI.

The "National Question"

While the cuts to the Employment Insurance system hit all workers across Canada, they are designed to have a particular punch in areas where workers can only find seasonal employment.

As Guillaume Bourgault-Coté showed, writing in the newspaper Le Devoir (May 30), while only 27.3% of EI claimants were considered "tier three" or "frequent users" according to the new definitions, 72% of frequent users across Canada were in Québec and the four Atlantic provinces.

"Québec alone provides 160,000 of the total 387,000 providers of this group (which is a little over a third of all the unemployed people in Québec)," Bourgault-Coté wrote, drawing from a 2012 report on EI Monitoring and Assessment. While Atlantic frequent users represent between 42.8% (Nova Scotia) and 61.4% (Newfoundland) of all claimants, Alberta has just 8.9% of frequent claimants, the lowest rate in the country.

The statistics show the overlap between regions with a high Acadien and Québécois population, where there is long-standing economic underdevelopment, and those impacted by EI. Perhaps it is not surprising that these are the communities where the fightback has been the strongest.

East Coast protest movement

A wave of actions took place across New Brunswick and Nova Scotia last winter and into the spring. Quiet towns and tiny villages across New Brunswick's Acadian peninsula, including Campbellton, Inkerman, Tracadie-Sheila, and Miramichi saw large crowds of angry residents up in arms against the EI reforms. Up to six hundred workers and families blocked traffic and, in some cases, occupied Service Canada offices.

Larger centers such as Shediac, Moncton, Fredericton, and Saint-Quentin also saw protests as did a number of communities across Nova Scotia including Sydney, Antigonish, Truro, Bridgewater, and Halifax.

"What Ottawa seems to disregard is that rural communities are almost devoid of year-long employment industries," Michel Richard, an organizer with the Maritime Fishermen's Union and spokesperson for a New Brunswick coalition against the EI reforms, told CBC News.

Work seasonal, not workers

Last year, EI usage in New Brunswick averaged 35,019 workers. Some months as many as 45,830 workers were reported to be collecting.

"We have to demystify this myth that there are seasonal workers; it is a derogatory way of speaking because these workers actually depend on seasonal work because so many activities in the Atlantic rural areas, the fisheries, agriculture, etc. are seasonal. It is the work that is seasonal," Richard told another news source.

"The government has never shown any interest in building infrastructure in rural and coastal areas so that there can be work all year long" he said, noting that depletion of fishing stocks had led to a reduced fishing season.

Petition strikes a cord

When Acadien Guy Lanteigne started an online petition from his New Brunswick home, he hardly expected it to reach 34,000 Canadians coast to coast.

But Lanteigne's petition quickly earned the support of a wide range of community groups in New Brunswick including the Association of Francophone Seniors, the Association of Francophone Municipalities, the Union of Municipalities, the Francophone Literacy Association, and the Acadian Society, as well as trade union support such as the New Brunswick Federation of Labour.

All four provincial governments in the Atlantic, including two Conservative governments, have gone on record with some form of opposition to the federal Conservative EI reforms. The Atlantic Episcopal Assembly of Catholic Bishops also issued an open letter in May expressing "our understanding, our support and our solidarity in this struggle for a more compassionate, equitable and fair system of [EI] assistance."

Major fightback in Québec

Even larger demonstrations have taken place in Québec. Every city in that province has seen some form of action opposing the EI reforms. Almost a hundred citizens' assemblies on EI have taken place drawing over 10,000 participants.

The biggest anti-EI reform mobilization was held in Montréal to mark May Day. The march drew over 50,000 people into the streets. Although relatively under-reported by the corporate media outside of Québec, the demo was likely the largest mass protest in Canada since the Québec student strike.

Organizing continued this past summer. The education group Mouvement Action-Chomage de Montréal (Montreal Unemployment Action Movement) recently convened an early-September planning meeting to strategize for the days ahead, when the impact of the reforms will begin to be felt, with plans for continued action including occupations of government buildings and political offices.

The whistle blower

When Sylvie Therrien took her job at Service Canada, she never intended to be a whistle blower. Now she is suspended without pay and subject to a witch-hunt by the government, all because she leaked documents that put wind in the sails of the Employment Insurance fightback.

Therrien's leak, coming after months of actions in these communities, exploded like a small bomb by scandalizing the public that Service Canada had placed quotas to find $485,000 in "savings" by denying EI claims.

Pressure tactics included checking addresses, bank accounts, medical documents, physical appearances, and even banging on the door of claimant's homes demanding an interrogation-style interview with twenty-three questions.

More scandals

Québec organizers have exposed other scandals involving EI, including the case of a man whose active claim was terminated after Service Canada unsuccessfully called his house several times, to see if he was working. The problem is, each time Service Canada called, he was at a local job-search workshop organized by the government.

Now the worker is weaving his way through the new appeals process, trying to win back his claim. But as part of the EI reforms the Tories have abolished the old Employment Insurance Boards of Referees, which included a representative from business and labour, as well as a chairperson.

Already, as the Canadian Press (May 21st) found recently, "as many as one of every five chairpersons on the Employment Insurance Boards of Referees gave money to political parties, riding associations and election candidates while they served on the tribunal," breaking the rules of impartiality and bringing in  $37,000 in donations in total to the Conservative Party.

More Tory friends

It seems like the patronage story has been repeated with the new one-person Social Security Tribunal.

Out of the 46 full-time members, "Six are failed Conservative candidates, one is a failed federal Progressive Conservative candidate, some have unsuccessfully run for Conservative nominations, some have been on the executive of Conservative riding associations, some have run for conservative parties at the provincial level, and others have donated to the federal party," the Globe and Mail (May 26th) reported.

Critics point out that these are the people, mostly Conservative men, who now make the decision whether workers receive Employment Insurance - or are "thrown to the lions" without any social support.

Broad coalition growing

All these scandals are helping fuel public anger in Québec against the EI reforms. The broad coalition Le Mouvement Autonome et Solidaire des Sans-emploi (the Independent and United Movement of the Unemployed or MASS) held its general assembly this past July.

"The addition of two new member groups [into the coalition] reflects the desire of working people and the unemployed to fight together against these unfair reforms, which will have negative consequences on the entire world of work," Marie-Hélene Arruda, spokesperson of the MASS coalition told the general assembly.

"The unemployed groups, trade unions and civil society organizations have closed ranks to express their opposition and speak with a united voice against the [Harper Conservative] government which instead, opts for division of `the good' and `the bad' unemployed."

Class impact

The comments by the MASS underscore the wide-ranging class impact the Tories "slash-and-burn" cuts have beyond just those who are unemployed, either regularly or occasionally, or just those in Québec and Atlantic Canada.

"In the current economy, we are told, it is unlikely that you will make it through your life without being laid-off and have to search for a new job. In fact, we are told that this will [actually be] rather regular," Graham Cox wrote on the news site recently.

"The reason for this is not that we are all bad workers, but rather because that is the nature of capitalism. The economic system imposed on us has brought with it a reduction in secure employment and a massive increase in precarious work," wrote Cox, a research director with the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE).

Women also hit hard

Earlier this year, CUPE released a brief stating the EI reforms will have a greater impact on women. The CUPE study used Statistics Canada's economic dependency profile estimating the economic impact of social welfare, pensions, and unemployment benefits.

Women collect unemployment benefits for considerably longer periods of time than men across the country (for example 30 weeks in Manitoba and Saskatchewan compared to 19 weeks for men). Thus for the EI reforms for frequent users of the unemployment insurance system, the so-called "third tier" workers, women will be most impacted.


The CUPE research briefing note from March 2013 shows that lowest number of insurable hours for both men and women EI recipients is in Atlantic Canada and Québec. This indicates the degree of precarious and seasonal work in these regions.

For generations, families have put food on the table from work in fishing, agriculture and forestry in these regions which are seasonal employers. But other jobs like construction, tourism, public administration, and even education have seasonal lay-offs.

"The government has never shown any interest in building infrastructure in rural and coastal areas so that there can be work all year long. Still these seasonal sectors are economic engines in our rural areas," Michel Richard told news media.

Punished by EI

This underdevelopment of the economy in the Atlantic and large parts of Québec is, of course, no fault of the local workers. Nevertheless, government EI has become an essential subsidy to big capital in these regions to keep their work force afloat on "the pogey".

Québec and Atlantic male workers, as well as BC and Atlantic women workers, have just over 1650 insurable hours on average, and Québec women rank lowest in the country, at 1600 insurable hours according to CUPE.

This compares to just under 1700 hours for BC male workers, just over 1800 hours for both men and women in Ontario, and well over 1800 for men and women workers in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta.

Now, with the limitations imposed through the "three-tier" system, these so-called "repeat users" will have to accept any work they can find - even if it is 70% lower than their previous pay and an almost an hour drive (one-way) from home.

Social future of crisis

The "punishment" is made all the harder by comments like those of the current Minister of Finance, Jim Flaherty.

Speaking in Parliament, Flaherty said in May of last year that there were no bad jobs. "I drove a taxi, I refereed hockey, you do what you have to do to make a living." As the editor of a Langley, BC, newspaper said "If we could burn stupid like oil, we could run every car in Canada for a month on his latest remarks."

Flaherty's parliamentary biography also states he went to a private boys high school before graduating from the Ivy League Princeton University and then Osgoode Law school. His first career in politics was as a cabinet minister in the notorious Mike Harris Ontario Conservative government when, the news archives show, he proposed to solve the homelessness crisis in Ontario by making homelessness illegal.

Sharp edge

The Star's Carol Goar wrote last April, "No doubt these measures will sharpen the private sector's competitive edge. [However] Over time, they will erode Canada's standard of living and reduce the resilience of its workforce."

In these times of capitalist economic crisis, it is becoming clearer that the destruction of programs like EI and the impoverishment of working people who create all the wealth in society, is in fact exactly what makes "the sharp competitive edge" of the private sector.

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