Friday, September 04, 2009

CUPE Strikers Head Off Concessions

by Herman Rosenfeld
BASICS #15 (Sep/Oct 2009)

The 39 day strike of 24,000 members of Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Locals 79 and 416, representing inside and outside Toronto municipal workers, ended in a partial economic victory, but a political setback as well.

It was a victory in the sense that both groups of workers were able to work together to stop a host of major concessions demanded by the city. These included:

o Initial wage offers well below those already bargained by police, firefighters, hydro workers, and other municipal workers. This pattern included the 2.4 percent wage increase City Council voted themselves, and the retention of their own generous 'severance' packages.
o Demands to take away the use of sick days for absences and the right to bank them as a way of providing severance on retirement; and
o A series of other concession demands around seniority rights and methods of filling job openings

Both union locals held out and prevented the city from attaining its goals. Wage rates were somewhat below those gained by others, but higher than the city’s original demands. Existing workers were able to maintain the sick day bank, while they also have the choice of opting for a new short-term disability plan and a cash buyout of their banked sick days. New hires will not have access to the sick days, but will use the disability plan. This is a partial victory: current workers keep their benefits; but for those who opt for the new plan and the new hires, they will lose out on the use of banked days as severance. Hopefully, the union can fight for severance in the future. Having a disability plan is not, in itself a loss. The other concessions were taken off the table.

But the strike was also a political defeat. The two large union locals didn’t wage a battle to win over the general public – the vast majority of whom are working class people. The Toronto city government’s attack on the workers was only one part of a larger attempt to force workers to pay for the crisis by lowering wages and benefits through concessions or demands for takeaways and weakening unions. After having forced a massive defeat on autoworkers – accompanied by a propaganda offensive targeting the workers as being privileged and responsible for the problems in the industry – the capitalist class and governments moved on to attack municipal workers, demonizing workers for the sick day benefit.

None of these issues were raised by CUPE. There were precious few efforts to convince ordinary Torontonians that the union was fighting to defend public services and the rights of all working people. The CUPE locals acted as if this was just another labour dispute, ignoring the political role that all public sector struggles must necessarily play.

CUPE’s educational, research and public communications resources seemed completely out of sync with the striking locals, giving the impression of a union in disarray. Even among the strikers, there was little education and preparation, with almost no examples of strike education, helping the workers learn about the main strike issues, the political forces behind the employer, and how to speak to the general public.

The rest of the labour movement in Toronto played a weak role in supporting the strike. The huge Stewards’ Assembly held by the Labour Council in May did not serve as a base for building a mass movement behind this struggle.

Without a strong effort by the union to clarify the political issues behind the struggle, the right-wing forces in Toronto were strengthened. Mayor David Miller and his allies on city council put the interests of wealthy real estate and corporate interests ahead of their main voting base, showing the futility of the current political strategy of organized labour in Toronto. In the future, public service delivery and the rights of the city’s public sector workers are in danger.

It’s time for the left within CUPE to organize itself, raise important questions about the union’s structure, the dysfunctional role of business unionism and the necessity of building a capacity and willingness to engage in political education and mobilization with the members and the public. The Toronto Labour Council needs to rethink its links with the Miller administration, city counselors who refused to support the CUPE strikers and the entire private sector development strategy. The socialist left needs to build a stronger base in the Toronto union movement as a whole.