Labour negotiations can't be in 'good faith' without acknowledging the cruelties workers face

When labour disputes arise, there is a term often relied upon to articulate a level of honesty within offers, positions and negotiations — it’s the call from all sides to operate in “good faith.” But can that happen when crucial parts of workers' realities are omitted, asks Ameil J. Joseph.

For so many, labour action is about whether they get to eat or stay in their home

Vanessa Vella standing on the side of the road with a sign that reads "Protect Workers Rights."
Supporters of education workers joined the CUPE picket line near Lime Ridge Mall in Hamilton on Nov. 4. CUPE and the Ontario government reached a tentative deal Nov. 20. (Aura Carreño Rosas/CBC)

This column is an opinion by Ameil J. Joseph, an associate professor with the School of Social Work at McMaster University. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), representing education workers, and the Ontario government reached a tentative deal Sunday night that is keeping kids in classrooms this week. 

Meanwhile, nearly 3,000 teaching and research assistants at McMaster University in Hamilton are off the job after the university rejected to move any further on wages and other measures late last week.

This won't be the last we hear about the labour and economic conditions of educators in this province, or across this country. 

When labour disputes arise, there is a term often relied upon to articulate a level of honesty within offers, positions, and negotiations for workers and their employers — it's the call from all sides to operate in "good faith." 

It is not a new maneuver, but I think it is an important one for everyone to reflect on. 

Public sector workers in education sectors across the province have been trying to articulate their honest, contemporary realities to their employers — that context frames what "good faith" means. Yet they have repeatedly been met with what could instead be called bad faith responses. 

All of us should be thinking about the material impacts of this. That requires honesty that is, in this very moment, an absolute necessity.

The need to paint an honest picture

I worry about the degradation of the meaning of honesty. I worry about how the goal posts for honesty are being moved, time and again. I worry about elected officials sharing misinformation and disinformation about the number of days children have been out of school due to strikes. 

I worry about McMaster University, where I teach, sending internal messages that limit what information can and should be shared across the university with specific respect to its own labour dispute. 

For instance, statements and media releases from university leadership have implied that teaching assistants and research assistants are asking for an hourly wage that is unreasonable, yet they choose to omit the fact that those student teaching assistants are limited in the amount of hours they can work in these roles while they pursue their education. These very students have to pay tuition out of their wages as well, and that leaves them taking home no more than about $5,000 per year from which to pay all their expenses, including groceries and rent. 

What is the intention of omitting the fact that housing costs have risen at rates that exponentially outweigh increases to compensation? Does it matter that inflation has made the cost of everything rise, making survivability a necessary part of good faith negotiations? Does it matter that Bill 124 has restricted public sector compensation to one per cent annual increases since 2019? 

All of these frame what good faith means. Omitting them should also convey to people what bad faith means.

Workers's ability to survive is at stake

I just happen to be a person who has been intergenerationally impacted by the devastating projects of colonial exploitation, as a descendant of indentured labourers bought on vessels to toil on sugar plantations in Guyana. 

I grew up in a family that lived and talked about the values of solidarity, collectivity, and mobilization in unity. My father was involved in much union organizing and activism on these lands. I grew up learning about why not crossing a picket line was not only important, but so often a matter of whether someone or their family gets to eat or not, stay in their home or not. 

Those outcomes are too close to so many at this very moment. When some choose to misrepresent the asks of those who are telling you they don't have enough to stay housed or to eat, to frame them as greedy, or to position their asks as some sort of demand for pampering or luxury, or to imply that their asks should be met with coercive legislative intervention, or restrictions on how they communicate, those actions are not only done in bad faith, but with active cruelty.

Attempts to omit voices, to divide solidarities, to erase analyses when survivability is at stake should say something to all of us in these moments. It should tell us that these bad-faith manoeuvres not only impede how agile we can be in moments when we need to rapidly and drastically change how we respond in the times of crisis, they will also shape how well we will be able to react in crises yet to come.

There can be no "brighter world" — a much-used McMaster slogan — when we leave the practices of cruelty intact.

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Ameil J. Joseph

Freelance contributor

Ameil J. Joseph is an associate professor with the School of Social Work at McMaster University. He holds the Faculty of Social Sciences Professorship in Equity, Identity, and Transformation.