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It's Time To Put An End
To Unnecessary Overtime Says Union

Many Canadians are working longer and longer hours while others have too few or none. The Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada (CEP) recently began a campaign to reduce overtime hours with the goal of creating more good paying jobs. CPRN researcher Adam Seddon spoke with Julie White, Researcher for the CEP, about this campaign, and why it’s important to Canadians.

AS: How would you define a high quality job?

JW: It obviously has to do with decent wages and benefits, and also good job security. One of the other things we find workers are very concerned about when they look at organizing with a union is the issue of respect and how they are generally treated at work. One thing we’re especially active in right now with the CEP is in creating more jobs through our shorter work time campaign as well as a better work-life balance.

AS: What is the shorter workweek campaign about and what are its goals?

JW: We’ve found that in many workplaces jobs were disappearing because of technological change and downsizing, while overtime hours were on the rise. This seems to be the case in many industries in Canada. We have so many potential jobs available out there that are being worked as overtime and what our campaign is suggesting is that people should reduce overtime and have those overtime hours replaced with full time jobs in their workplace.

This issue of overtime is just the first element of our campaign. More broadly, it is a campaign about shorter working time which includes moving to shorter regular hours of work. If you don’t have overtime under control, there is not much point in moving to shorter hours while continuing to work a lot of overtime. We’re looking at the overtime issue first, but in the campaign we will also be looking at shorter regular hours of work.

AS: I know that in France for instance, there has been a move to reduced working hours.

JW: There is no question that in Western Europe there is a general shift to shorter working hours, both to create employment and to create a better style of life for workers. France and Italy have both moved to a 35-hour standard week. France also has a limit on overtime and nobody can work more than 130 hours of overtime in any given year. Germany has also been moving to shorter hours, and the Netherlands has among the lowest hours of work anywhere in Europe. It’s also important to note that all these countries have a minimum of 5 weeks off work a year for holidays. In most Canadian jurisdictions you’re only entitled to 2 weeks off.

Another important thing to mention about Canada is that we tend to assume that we have a 40 hour work-week in this country. This is in fact not the case. We have four provinces that have over 40 hour weeks – two that have 44-hour and two that have 48-hour weeks. What that means is that over half of Canadians are not covered by legislation that gives them a 40-hour work-week.

AS: The available evidence seems to suggest that in recent decades, the average number of hours people work is actually increasing, despite all talk about how technology will reduce work.

JW: There are two issues there. There is a trend to more people working over 40 hours a week as their norm. The other thing that is really critical, in terms of why people feel so stressed about their jobs and about the amount of time they have in their lives, is the entry of women in very large numbers into the labour force beginning in the 1950s and 1960s. Whereas you used to have a family surviving on 40 hours a week in the 1950s, now you have many families that are working 60, 70, 80, or 90 hours a week. A study by Statistics Canada showed that one out of every five families worked over 90 hours a week between them. That means one full-time job and another more than full-time job. These kinds of hours are creating a huge amount of stress in families. For example, your own CPRN study showed that over the last 10 years, levels of stress have increased, the amount of sickness has increased, and people are feeling less happy about their work.

AS: What has been the response of your members to this overtime campaign? After all, do they not want the extra premium pay?

JW: Controlling overtime has always been somewhat controversial in the union movement. In times where pay raises may be difficult to come by, people are more interested in working overtime to increase their pay by working more. But what we found in a major study we did of our 6,500 members in the B.C. pulp and paper industry was that over 70 percent of them said they were prepared to reduce overtime if it meant creating or saving jobs. This finding was a surprise to a lot of people.

We have a very interesting example going on right now. A group of workers are on strike because they are fighting the company’s requirements around working overtime. They are already working 300-400 hours of overtime a year and they are saying this is too much and that the company should hire another 20 or so workers instead of having them work more overtime. The company is trying to make the working of overtime more mandatory than it has been in the past and refuses to hire workers to replace the overtime hours. This is the major issue in the strike; the issues of wages and benefits, and so on, have all been settled.

There has been a tendency to stereotype the idea that every worker is out there grabbing every hour of overtime they can get. That is partially true, but only for a minority of workers. But when you put it in terms of creating or protecting jobs, the response can be different than the one we tend to assume. We have a huge opportunity given the number of overtime hours that are worked across Canada to create jobs in well paying industries. In the process we’ll be helping out communities as well.

AS: What has been the typical response of employers? Presumably, hiring more workers would add to their fixed costs?

JW: Well that was another thing that was a surprise. We found in our study that in cases where employers were paying double time for overtime there would be substantial savings if they reduced overtime hours by hiring more full time workers. That was a shock for many people, because it is commonly assumed that employers use overtime instead of hiring because it’s cheaper. If you hire a new worker you’re paying their regular-time wage and you are paying somewhat less than another 50 percent for all the benefits, paid vacations, tools, training, and payroll taxes - every cost over and above wages. It all comes out to something less than 50 percent, and that’s in a situation where there is a union and generous benefits. So, where employers are paying time and a half, it’s basically a no cost proposition to hire more workers. In a situation where they are paying double time, they are actually going to save money.

We took that study to over 20 different mills, which included presentations to employers. Nobody ever questioned our numbers, nobody ever said ‘you’ve got this or that figure wrong.’ Employers seem to be caught up in an ideology that says ‘lean and mean’ is better, ‘smaller’ is better, ‘smaller’ is more competitive. There is a move to more part-time workers, more temporary workers, more contract workers – the goal of which is to have a smaller regular workforce. Overtime is part of this trend. We have 9 million hours of paid overtime being worked every week in this country. That translates into about 225,000 full time jobs. While we would agree that some of that overtime cannot easily be replaced, a large amount of overtime is being worked to cover for negotiated time off - for vacations, for predictable illnesses, all kinds of things for which there should be enough workers around to cover without the need for overtime.

AS: What have been the major victories of this campaign thus far?

JW: Well the campaign is fairly new, it began in October 2001. A recent example that is quite exciting is that we have the first mill in our western region which has just negotiated a 37 and a 1/3 hour week, down from 40 hours. That came about in a situation where they were facing layoffs and the workers decided to reduce their hours to save 25 jobs. They also have reduced overtime a lot over the last few years because they had a previous layoff situation. This will be the first mill in western Canada that will be working at less than 40 hours a week. Production workers on shift will be working four 12 hour shifts in a row and then taking five days off. Day workers, mostly maintenance, will be taking every third Friday off, bringing their average hours down to 37 and a 1/3. A lot of those workers are very happy about getting a long weekend every third week.

In the energy sector in southern Ontario, we’ve had workers on that kind of schedule for many years now. These days off have come to be known as ‘happy Fridays.’ In fact we have whole communities in southern Ontario that have these so-called ‘happy Fridays’ and they now have tournaments, picnics, and all kinds of other events on those days. The people who moved to that schedule say that it’s one of the few things that would call for an automatic strike if the employers ever tried to take those days away. Those employees have become very attached to having those long weekends away from work.

AS: What have been the biggest challenges or obstacles?

JW: There have been a number of them. As a society we’ve tended to build a culture were we accept that overtime is just part of what we do. We have lots of locations where its an accepted fact that everyone simply works overtime and managers get used to simply assigning overtime as a way of dealing with staffing issues.

A lot of what we talk about in the union is the need for two things - cultural change and leadership. We need to question these long hours - we know they’re bad for families, we know they’re bad for health, and we know they’re bad for safety. We need to start to have more of our members understand that this is a problem, and move in the direction of saying ‘we don’t accept working these long hours, we don’t accept that overtime should be part of our lives, except in emergency situations.’ It’s not an emergency situation when people are working 400 hours of overtime year after year.

In the union movement we need to show some leadership on this issue. For our members who have decent base pay, we should encourage them to not work overtime. We currently have a number of locals where this is the case, it’s simply not normal to work overtime. I’m talking about locals in the same industries where we have other locals that are working lots of overtime. People just don’t work it, they don’t expect to work it, and every new worker who arrives understands that you don’t work overtime because it takes a job away from someone else. It takes some time to develop that culture, but I think that is the direction we need to be moving in.

AS: Do you see a role for governments to be promoting these sorts of issues?

JW: In Quebec they have recently moved from a 44-hour standard week to 40, cutting one hour at a time over the past four years. So that has been a really positive move. But we also have some pressure in the opposite direction.

The federal government is considering changing hours for Canadian truck drivers, some of whom we represent. Transport Canada is proposing that truck drivers be permitted to drive for 14 hours per shift and for 84 hours a week. As a union we’re almost dumbfounded about how to respond to this initiative in a way that isn’t simply pointing out it’s patently absurd and completely unacceptable. It’s dangerous to be on the highways with people who are driving these kinds of hours, and yet I have to tell you this is a serious proposal and has been under consideration for several years. This will affect a very substantial group of workers, 125,000 Canadians work as truck drivers and they face the possibility of moving to hours of work that are unprecedented at any time in our history. So in the CEP we’ve had a campaign to encourage all our locals to protest this situation. There are going to be public hearing in the coming months and we will be attending to put our views forward about what the hours for truck drivers should look like.

AS: What would you like to see governments doing?

JW: It would be very useful if the provinces that still have over 40 hours a week as their standard - that is Ontario, Alberta, PEI, and Nova Scotia – move their standard weekly hours into the new millennium and set them to no more than 40. You know, in Europe we have a situation where most countries have already moved to less than 40 hours a week. I think the other thing that needs to be looked at, and this was recommended in a federal government report on work-time in 1994, is that a limit should be set on the number of hours of overtime people should be permitted to work in a year.

In general, one does not have the right to refuse overtime in Canada. Employees only have that right in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. At a recent union meeting someone told me that they were asked to work overtime while in the middle of moving house. This individual refused, and as a result, they were suspended from work without pay for two days. This is perfectly permissible under our current legislation. So, making overtime voluntary would be a step in the right direction.

AS: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us about these issues.


Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada (CEP) website - www.cep.ca