Solidarity Forever?

When one B.C. union 
is accused of raiding another, labour leaders get angry

It’s one thing when unionized workers decide they want to leave their current union and join another, but labour leaders tend to get a little hot under the collar when that other union starts helping them along. Within the labour movement, where everyone is “brother” or “sister” and solidarity is next to godliness, these things are not taken lightly.

Some of B.C.’s 9,000 licensed practical nurses (LPNs) have long talked about switching out of the Hospital Employees’ Union and into the B.C. Nurses’ Union. But when the Nurses’ Union began assisting them – signing up interested LPNs as “associate members” as part of an effort to promote their organization – the outcry was swift and vicious. There’s an ugly word in the labour lexicon for expanding one’s membership at the cost of another union: it’s called raiding.

The Canadian Labour Congress and many affiliated unions wrote letters condemning the Nurses’ Union’s tactics. Jim Sinclair, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour, contributed his own stern reprimand, writing that the Nurses’ Union’s action “plays directly into the hands of the B.C. government. This division hurts not only our movement, but ultimately patients.” The Nurses’ Union is now suspended from all councils and services organized by the provincial and national labour groups. 

Despite the backlash, Nurses’ Union president Debra McPherson is steadfast in the decision to welcome the dissenting LPNs. If enough are willing to join them, the Nurses’ Union will officially sign up workers who wish to defect and present the signatures to the Labour Relations Board of B.C., which can call for a vote to change their union representation. At the root of this fight, McPherson says, are the democratic rights of workers: “The fundamental principle of the freedom to be represented by a union should be supported by the freedom to choose the union you want to represent you.”

Jim Sinclair, interestingly, also talks about democracy when he condemns the Nurses’ Union, arguing that disgruntled workers should resolve their issues within their current union’s democratic processes without jeopardizing the unity of the labour movement. He says there are internal rules in place if workers want to change their union, although he admits, “We don’t make 
it easy.”

What pains him about this fight, he says, is that unions are fighting among themselves for members as the proportion of unionized workers in B.C. steadily declines. Between 1997 and 2007, the percentage of B.C. workers belonging to a union dropped from 36.6 per cent to 32.1 per cent. The labour movement should be focusing its energies on representing the unorganized, Sinclair says, not on infighting.

So how does one characterize this schism? Is the demand for union solidarity trampling the individual worker’s right to dissent? Or is the Nurses’ Union selfishly growing its own ranks at the expense of the greater labour movement? Well, it depends on your perspective, suggests Mark Leier, director of SFU’s centre for labour studies: “It’s like any other thing: your union raid is my democratic unionism.”

The fact that there’s friction within unions should come as no surprise, Leier says; they are no different than other large, complex organizations in that they constantly evolve through conflicts and resolution. Raids are one of those conflicts, and it’s the task of the major labour bodies to try to restore unity when these things arise – although it’s not always easy. “Solidarity is not a simple, natural occurrence,” Leier says. “It’s something you have to work at.”

McPherson says she does not foresee this tiff causing any serious harm to the wider labour movement or threatening the joint causes mainstream unions support. “This has happened in the past with other unions,” she says. “At the end of the day, the labour movement always comes together and finds a way to find peace.” – Peter Severinson

Reality TV’s next stop: 
a hair salon near you

Ask Daniel Hudon and Michael Procter what they think of reality TV shows and the response is practically vitriolic. “I don’t watch them; I don’t appreciate them,” declares Procter. So why did the owners of rock-and-roll hair salon Chop Shop Hair Co. Inc. agree to front one on national TV? 

“You’d be stupid not to,” Hudon chimes in. That irreverence coupled with the shop’s anti-salon atmosphere – think pin-up girls on the walls and a hot rod for a front desk – is precisely what drew Lawrence McDonald into the Granville Street salon three years ago. The independent TV producer was walking by one night and caught a glimpse of various personalities at play. McDonald immediately saw potential in the shop’s cast of counter-culture characters and pitched the concept to Vancouver-based Paperny Films. In February, Chop Shop began airing on Slice Network.

“We came kind of full circle,” explains Procter, who keeps a low on-air profile while Hudon plays up the boss-man angle. In each of the 13 30-minute episodes, Hudon is front and centre as the de facto star, dealing with the challenges (real or exaggerated) of running a small business. A rotating clan of strong-willed stylists keeps the drama going with stories of their breakups, make-ups, hirings and firings. 

Since the show’s launch, Chop Shop has seen an 18 per cent increase in customer traffic and revenue, says the salon’s accountant and numbers guru Rick Momsen. What’s better, he adds, it virtually eliminated the need for marketing, saving roughly $2,000 a month, and boosted the prospects of two new locations that opened this year, one in Langley, the other on Commercial Drive. “We made that happen,” Momsen says. “But I do think when approaching investors, having a reality show certainly gives you that added boost to credibility.” With plans to franchise nationally, Hudon speculates the show has netted them millions in free advertising.

That sort of national exposure is undoubtedly enticing. At least one other West Coast business is already en route to reality-TV land: The Cupcake Girls, featuring North Vancouver’s Lori Joyce and Heather White and their six Cupcakes franchises, is destined for the W Network this January. And while Hudon admits some of his regular clients were turned off by all the media attention, he maintains he’s kept a clear head. “We don’t claim to be the world’s greatest hair­dressers; we just cut hair.” – Jessica Barrett

Software that tells you who
to fire – and when

For the CEO who has everything, now there’s a software program that promises to take the guesswork out of downsizing. The logic behind Vancouver-based Octothorpe Software Corp.’s Amadeus.SRA “talent management” software is straightforward: in an organization of 500 employees, it would be easy to find three poor performers to let go, but with a staff of 20, losing the wrong three people could paralyze the company.

Peter Tingling, Octothorpe’s founder and CEO, argues that deciding who has to go is particularly tough in these challenging times. “We’re not just running lean,” he says. “We’re running anorexic companies with no excess fat to trim.” Still, cutbacks need to be made, and Amadeus.SRA promises to make the decisions, if not painless, at least more efficient. 

A CEO simply enters all the human-resources criteria he feels are important, and the software spits out names: who should be hired, who should be rewarded and who should be let go. Tingling is evasive when asked how much it costs, simply replying that the program “costs a whole lot less than making a mistake.”

Tingling describes restructuring work he was involved in during the 1990s: “We sat in a boardroom and made the decision to lay off 200 employees.” The decisions weren’t arbitrary, but Tingling nevertheless felt he was wielding a blunt axe. The experience eventually led him to the University of Western Ontario, where he wrote his PhD dissertation on decision-making technology. He founded Octothorpe in 2004 and today teaches full time at SFU’s Segal Graduate School of Business while also serving as Octothorpe’s CEO.

The researchers at Octothorpe studied advanced decision theory to identify classic mistakes and best practices in HR decisions, and, according to Tingling, their product eliminates many of the biases inherent in decision-making. “Our premise is that people aren’t fungible,” he says. There is a big difference between choosing Martin Brodeur and Roberto Luongo as a goalie, he explains; they aren’t equal. “The question is, under which circumstances would a team prefer one to the other?”

One thing that Amadeus.SRA isn’t going to do is think on behalf of a manager or CEO. “People tell me, ‘Your software is too difficult to use. It wants me to think.’ Well, of course. This is a difficult process and you ought to be thinking hard about it.” On average, managers spend 40 hours making a hiring decision, Tingling says. Where, he asks, is the logic in dismissing staff in a matter of minutes? – Maged Sedky