Recent political developments do not bode well for unionized public-sector workers. While the decisive defeat of the Tories in Ontario is welcome news, the actions of the provincial Liberals reveal they have no intention of undoing the damage inflicted by Mike Harris. In other provinces there is already a full-scale attack on public-sector unionized jobs. And the coronation of Paul Martin as prime minister will likely result in a new assault at the federal level.
The battleground is the contracting out of good-paying unionized public-sector jobs to poorly paid private-sector contractors.
For right-wing governments, contracting out of work can achieve several objectives. Lucrative contracts are a means of repaying financial contributions from private-sector supporters. At minimum, contracting out of jobs pushes the unions onto the defensive. When carried out on a wide scale it can severely weaken public-sector unions and can create divisions within the labour movement, as unions fight over who will represent the contractors’ workers. While contracting out rarely provides significant financial savings, it can convey the impression that governments are trying to reduce costs without sacrificing public services. Often the jobs that are contracted out are the least visible ones, like cleaning, maintenance and support services.
Until recently the front line of the battle around contracting out has been British Columbia. The Liberal government has instituted cutbacks and contracting out to a degree unprecedented in any province. But the battles in B.C. have now been taken up in Québec. One of the first acts of Québec Premier Jean Charest was to attack union protections against contracting out of work by municipalities and other public-sector employers. Québec law protects employees whose jobs are contracted out or sold off by extending the provisions of the existing collective agreement and union recognition for one year, or until a new agreement is signed. These provisions have existed for over 40 years.
Charest’s public views on the public-sector reflect the position taken by Paul Martin while finance minister, namely that direct public-sector employment should be restricted as much as possible, with preference given to private-sector service providers wherever possible. Now that Martin is prime minister, it is likely that the practice of sub-contracting at the federal level will escalate.
Québec’s labour movement did not wait for the legislation to pass. On December 11 the Québec Federation of Labour and the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN) jointly undertook a province-wide Day of Disruption, which included the closure of Ports courts and daycare centres, the blocking of highways and massive demonstrations. More is promised if Charest does not back down.
The actions of the Québec labour centrals are necessary and timely. Anyone wishing to see just how serious the impact of massive contracting out by a right-wing government can be should visit the website of B.C.’s Hospital Employees Union (HEU) at www.heu.org. The HEU, an affiliate of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) is a strong, progressive and well-organized hospital workers’ union with a proud tradition of militancy. It has many of the best collective agreements covering hospital workers in Canada.
A visit to the HEU website’s “Media” link reveals the extremely difficult choices the union has to make when facing a government determined to fire thousands of workers and replace them with poorly paid contractors. The wages and working conditions in the newly contracted operations are so bad that the foreign companies contracted to clean operating rooms, intensive-care units and patient wards at major hospitals have had to offer finders’ fees, financial bonuses and other incentives in an effort to attract workers.
The HEU has had not only to contend with the most anti-union government in Canada, but it has also had to deal with raiding from the Industrial, Wood and Allied Workers of Canada (IWA). It is now up to the CLC and the rest of the labour movement to ensure that the IWA stops its destructive raiding practices and allows the HEU to concentrate its efforts to fight against the government.
There are many important lessons for the labour movement to be drawn from the experiences of B.C. and Québec. The importance of coordinated union action, including the leadership from the labour centrals, is crucial. Under no circumstances should unions be expected to take on governments in isolation. Nor should unions be permitted to undermine one another by signing sweetheart arrangements with contractors or raiding established unions that are already under attack.
There also must be more discussion of how labour can act collectively with its community and political allies to fight right-wing governments. In Ontario the Days of Action were an important expression of unity and industrial muscle from much of the labour movement in coordination with many community organizations. They did not bring down the Tories; that was never the objective. But the “Days” sent an important message that unions would not be pitted against one another. Many people credit the “Days” with forcing Harris to adopt more moderate policies in the latter part of his mandate.
Labour centrals, like the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) and the federations of labour, have an important role to play in organizing resistance to the contracting out of public services. The public-sector unions also have to find new forms of cooperation. Under no circumstances should any union be left to conduct these struggles on its own.
This article appeared in the January/February 2004 issue of Canadian Dimension .