Sears Service Technicians in Struggle
An Interview with Rav Ghuman
By Aaron Mercredi
Rav Ghuman is an Assistant Business Manager with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 213 and a representative for the service technicians who have been locked out by Sears. Fire This Time had a chance to sit down and talk with him about their fight.
Aaron: How has this lockout affected your members?
Rav: There are 70 members in the bargaining unit who are affected by this. Unfortunately, we’ve got a dozen or so members that are scabbing. And most of these members who are scabbing were also scabbing last time we were in a labour dispute with Sears. As a matter of fact, some of them even went so far as to try and decertify at the time. But the remaining 50 or so members we have, they’re spirits are strong. They’re very united. They’re willing to stand up to Sears and they’re out there leafleting on a daily basis. Except for the Underhill location, which is their work location. We’re actually picketing there at the Underhill location in Burnaby. But, all the other retail stores in the lower mainland, some in the Fraser Valley, are being leafleted on a daily basis by the members. They remain strong.
Aaron: What was Sears trying to make the workers agree to?
Rav: Well, Sears came in with an agenda to basically gut our agreement, completely re-write our whole agreement including things like getting rid of the arbitration process and so on and so forth. In the end, we argued about five or six issues left to be dealt with, which we would not agree to. And after about 10 sessions of bargaining, on the very last session on September 27th, the outstanding issues we had were hours of work, the length of the agreement, wages, split work weeks, BC medical coverage and Boxing Day. With Sears, Boxing Day is something we bargained for in our very first agreement as a paid holiday for our members. Sears wants to take that away. With split work weeks, Sears doesn’t want our members having two days off in a row. It will either be a Sunday and whichever other day it might be. That’s a split work week. There’s the issue of overtime. Right now, our members work a seven and a half hour day, and if they work anything past that, they get paid overtime, which is time and a half up to 11 hours a day. Sears wants them to work an extra half hour day without overtime rates, and there is no guarantee of an eight-hour day. So, if they end up working on a Saturday, for the first two and half hours, they wouldn’t get paid overtime. They’d be working at straight time on a Saturday for the first 2.5 hours. For the length of the agreement - and Sears insists on a 4-year agreement - they will not agree to negotiated wage increases. So, they want us to agree to a 4-year agreement with no guarantee of any wage increases. Right now, the dispute still continues. We’ve been locked out since October 1st. So, on the very last day we met on, September 27th, we were given until 2:30pm, to either accept Sears’ final offer, their imposed offer by the way, which included all those concessions I just mentioned. We weren’t given the opportunity to counter-propose that. They wanted us to make a decision. Whether we were going to accept this, their last offer, or whether we were going to reject it. So, the negotiating committee sat down and decided we were going to reject this agreement. At that point, at roughly 2pm on September 27th, the lawyer for Sears, who was also their lead negotiator, reached across the table and handed us a lockout notice that as of October 1st 2007, our members would be locked out from 8:30am until 10am, and after that they would invite the members back to work under this concessionary-imposed agreement. It also said they would not have to pay any union dues, which is a clear case of union-busting. So, if our members went back to work at 10am, they would be accepting the terms of their imposed agreement, which would mean no Boxing Day, split work weeks, no overtime for 2.5 hours on a Saturday, or a half hour a day, etc.
Aaron: What was the reaction of the workers to all of this, the imposed agreement and the lockout?
Rav: Oh, they were just shocked. Especially when we weren’t even given an opportunity to take this back to our members. We had to write right then and there, on the 27th of September, whether we were going to accept this or reject this, with no opportunity to even counter-propose their final offer.
Aaron: Is this the first time that Sears has been union-busting?
Rav: Well, we started to try and organize Sears in 1997. It took 4 years to reach our first agreement, which was in 2001. And in those 4 years, Sears did everything it could to try and not let the IBEW in there. So, even after we did organize, there were a handful of people, our so-called members, who were on a drive to decertify. Needless to say, I don’t think Sears has been very union-friendly.
Aaron: How has support been shown from other unions and labour organizations?
Rav: Well, support from other unions and organizations has just been incredible. Not only from our IBEW brothers and sisters, but right across to the Teamsters, CEP, you name it. Through the BC Federation of Labour, we’ve also asked all our affiliates for a boycott of Sears. So, we’re asking everyone not to shop at Sears. Rip up their cards, send a letter to Sears saying, “we will not shop here until this dispute is settled.” We’ve had leafleting going on. The Alberta Federation of Labour has also boycotted Sears and asked their members to boycott Sears. And they’re also helping us leaflet in Alberta. There’s been leafleting going on in New Brunswick, and in Toronto at Sears head office. They’ve been leafleted in October.
Aaron: How can people support the service technicians in this struggle?
Rav: The best way to help support these technicians is not to shop at Sears. If you do have a Sears card, cut it up. Send it to Sears and tell them you won’t shop at Sears until this labour dispute is settled. They can do that through a few different means, either by writing or emailing and we’ve also got a campaign started on a website called labourstart.org, and it talks about the Sears dispute. You can do it through that, and it is very easy to do. And we’re basically asking our members to do the same thing.
Aaron: Thanks a lot, Rav. Good luck with this fight.
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