Thursday, November 05, 2009

The Hudson’s Bay Company

From colonial empire to union-busting and the 2010 Olympics

BASICS #16 (Nov / Dec 2009)
by Michael Red

The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) was first established in 1670 and effectively became the first colonial government in Canada. The original name of the corporation – The Company of Adventurers of England Trading – foretold what would become a legacy of land expropriation and genocide. For example, when a smallpox epidemic hit the settlement of Victoria in 1862, HBC forced indigenous peoples out of town at gunpoint, knowing very well that the disease would spread to surrounding villages. As a result, 1 in 3 of all indigenous peoples in what is now called British Colombia died that year. The corporation had its own security forces as well as military protection from England. During the North-West “Riel” Rebellion of Métis and Cree warriors in 1885, HBC security forces were the prime agents in suppressing the uprising.

It is fitting that today, HBC is the main sponsor of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. This relationship reveals how the past and present of this country flow into one another with the continued expansion of corporate-sponsored colonialism and the land-theft and marginalization of indigenous peoples. During the 19th century, HBC oversaw executions of Native leaders along the coast of B.C. and invaded communities to facilitate the corporation’s land grab. Due to the over-representation of indigenous peoples among the oppressed in the BC today, they will bear the brunt of homelessness and police abuse directly resulting from the Olympics.

So how does this legacy impact us in our own communities? For starters, HBC owns Zellers. For anyone who has ever worked at a Zellers store, you have likely experienced bad working conditions, low pay, and no job security. In fact, many women workers at Zellers have actually been fired as a direct result of being pregnant! If you’ve ever attempted to organize a union at your Zellers, you will know that HBC is a sophisticated unionbusting machine. Inside organizers have often experienced threats, intimidation and coercion from a corporate anti-union team flown in from Alberta at the first hint of union activity.

Recently, HBC was purchased by an American investment firm. The new owners have also engaged in union busting at the few facilities that are organized. In the latest round of negotiations at the Zellers warehouse in Scarborough, CAW members were forced to hit the picket line after the company demanded massive concessions. After three months on strike, the workers voted 83% in favour of a new contract with wage increases and protections against further concessions. The success of the strike was largely due to massive support from the labour movement and solidarity pickets at HBC facilities across the country.

While this strike was occurring, UFCW successfully unionized an HBC warehouse in Etobicoke. This facility is adjacent to another HBC warehouse that has been unionized with UFCW for more than 20 years. Sure enough, the corporation ran a well-oiled smear campaign against the union leading up to the certification vote. HBC hired one of the richest anti-union law firms in the land – Hicks Morley – a bunch of sophisticated thugs who are paid big bags of cash every time the company attempts to defeat an organizing campaign. However, the workers prevailed and won their vote.

However, HBC has currently tied up the certification process for the new union with legal wrangling at the Ontario Labour Relations Board. By flooding the voters’ list with people who have not worked at the warehouse for many years, HBC hopes to defeat the union by tilting the ballots in favour of the company. While it remains clear to a majority of workers that they want their union, it will be government appointees at the Labour Board who will make the final decision in December of this year.

There are three decisive actions BASICS readers can take to challenge the corporate-sponsored colonialism of HBC. If you work at a Zellers or HBC location, you can build an inside organizing committee with your co-workers and start fighting for better wages and fair treatment. If you shop at Zellers, you can talk to workers and encourage them to stand up for their rights. Finally, you can join numerous community and Native groups that are resisting the oppression, racism and colonial legacy of the Olympics.