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Public sector common front can take on austerity

Peter Votsch, Chief steward, CUPE local 3202

June 1, 2015

Public sector workers in Ontario are facing an intransigent provincial government bent on imposing the austerity agenda at the bargaining table.

In addition to introducing a net zero policy, in which, as it implies, the government is committed to limiting even the most modest gains, they have introduced concessions in ongoing negotiations with the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) and teachers unions.

These include issues such as class sizes, prep time and micro-management of teachers, and a two-tier wage system and privatization (leading to job and service cuts) with workers in the Ontario public service. It should also be noted that a net zero stance on wage and benefit compensation is itself a reduction, with inflation in the province running at just over 1.5 per cent per year.

Secondary teachers at the Durham board of education, represented by the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF), have been on strike for four weeks, and have been joined by teachers in the Rainbow (Sudbury) board and the Peel board. Workers at the Ottawa-Carleton and Halton boards are set to walk out in the coming weeks. They had been met with a refusal to bargain from the beginning, are now facing a possible back-to-work order as the rainbow board has gone to court asking that it declare the strikes “illegal,” forcing workers back to work.

CUPE members at the boards, who are at the beginning stages of negotiations, are facing the same attacks by a government whose strategy has been to centralize bargaining across the board in order to tie the hands of local employers—and limit any gains workers may make.

It is more than likely that this strategy of limiting gains from the top will be applied to CUPE members throughout all sectors. “Net zero” will thus become a baseline for public sector employers across the province, making it that much easier to wrench other concessions. Predictably, employers will say their hands are tied (too bad, so sad) on wages and benefits, while gleefully presenting concessions of “their own.”

Common Front

We need a strategy of our own, as public sector workers, to “fight fire with fire” and we need not look far. The strategy of a common front of unions, facing the employer together, has long been the strategy of public sector unions in Quebec. Coordinated bargaining across such diverse sectors such as education, healthcare, transportation and municipal services has been coordinated since the great common front strike of 1972—which brought out workers across Quebec in a coordinated general strike against the government.

It’s “raison d’etre” is quite is simple: take on the employers together, don’t let them divide us. An injury to one is an injury to all. This is an approach that is overdue among Ontario’s public sector workers. We have seen time and again, workers taking on anti-union legislation such as Bill 115 separately—without a coordinated approach that can lead to victory. In the end, the strategy has been, “wait for the next election.” Clearly, with the re-election of the anti-labour Wynne government with a majority, that has gotten us nowhere.

CUPE has demonstrated in support of the teachers throughout Ontario this spring, and joined their picket lines. This is an excellent start, but more needs to be done. Public sector leaders need to move toward the common front model adopted in Quebec as soon as possible. When we say, that the teachers’ is our fight, we must make it concrete. Collective agreements should end at the same time, and we should bargain together, and strike together. In that context, calls for a general strike would not simply be a rhetorical flourish—it would be a reality, one that could pull in our sisters and brothers in the private sector.

We have in CUPE introduced discussions around coordinated bargaining in various sectors. This is good, but the progress is slow. We need to ramp this process up, way up! In order to meet the increasingly aggressive stances and demands for concessions from employers, we cannot afford to wait. Our timetable must match theirs, if we are to hold on to what we have, and make new gains.

The austerity agenda has always meant austerity for us, the working class, and never the employing class. Our discussions need to centre around the most important issue—how can we take them on, and win!

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