Coming out of a productive four days of workshops and cross-union collaboration at the Peoples’ Social Forum, RankandFile.ca has developed some reflections on some of the major labour struggles panning out across the country. From the attack on BC teachers to abuse in the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, the public is facing its fair share of attacks, and the labour movement needs diligence and persistence to fight for fair deals, better public services, and justice for workers everywhere.
Reflections on the BC Teachers’ Struggle
Lockouts and austerity. That’s how the B.C. government has defined its approach to negotiations with the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF). After 16 months of failed contract talks, B.C.’s teachers went to the picket lines in May as part of a province-wide rotating strike. Job action erupted after twelve years of government attacks on teachers, the BCTF, and public education.
It was only six months into the B.C. Liberal mandate in 2002 that Bill 28 unilaterally removed all contract provisions relating to class size, class composition and specialist teacher ratios. That legislation was ruled unconstitutional by the B.C. Supreme Court in 2011 and the government was given twelve months to correct it.
The Liberals, of course, responded by appealing the ruling and refused to reinstate the stripped contact language. The purpose of removing these contract provisions was two-fold: first, to reduce the public education budget by about $300 million per year. And second, to create mass layoffs and turn what was a teacher shortage into a teacher glut.
Since the class size provisions were removed, over 2500 teacher jobs have been eliminated and it is now common for teachers to spend years in “on call” positions before a full-time job is available. The impact has been drastic for teachers and students. Classrooms, particularly in low income areas where poverty rates are high, are simply not suitable for teaching and learning.
In some school districts, one in ten teachers will take a medical leave due to stressful working conditions.
Teachers were dealt another blow this summer when the province’s Labour Relations Board sided with the government and deemed the marking of Grade 12 exams an essential service. With this victory in their pocket, the Liberals tried to extend the essential service designation to other grade levels with an expensive media campaign that misrepresented teacher wage and benefit demands.
In reality, teachers have had zero wage contracts in seven of the last 15 years. Teachers and the public responded with counter memes and humour, exposing the government as caring little for the quality of public education.
Despite the challenges, B.C. teachers are resolved. That resolve needs to be harnessed into actions that will secure a good deal that addresses class size and composition. Teachers need to let their leadership know that what matters is not when or how, but what. As we picket summer school, the motto should be “as long as it takes.”
And if the leadership brings back a deal below our bottom line, we need to be prepared to vote no. Not in 12 years has there been this much public support and this much teacher resolve. Now is the time to ensure that translates into the deal that teachers and students deserve.
Pensions Under Attack
There have been five big fights to defend good pensions this summer. Every generation of worker is facing the attack: new hires, veteran employees, and the retired. Corporations and governments want to replace plans with guaranteed pay outs (“defined benefit”) with pensions that pay out based on stock markets or company performance (“defined contribution”).
But pension plans are healthy in Canada. The pensions “time bomb” is being used by government and corporations to get what they want. Corporations want plans without defined benefits so they can use the money to gamble on the stock market, and bust up union power. Governments want to cut spending for the 1% austerity agenda and weaken public sector unions. These individual fights can’t be won alone. We have to find a way to have a united pension fight.
Bombardier vs Unifor 1075
The 900 Thunder Bay workers building Toronto’s new streetcars have been on strike since mid-July because Bombardier wants a two-tier pension that would hurt new hires. Last year Bombardier made $572 million in profits and its CEO Pierre Beaudoin “earned” $6 million.
Cascade Aerospace in Abbotsford BC
Over 400 aerospace workers of Unifor Local 114 struck from June 4 until August 24. Cascade Aerospace wanted a two-tier pension system, and worse health benefits and vacation time for new hires.
AreclorMittal lockout at Contrecoeur
In early August, 260 Steelworkers were locked out at ArcelorMittal northeast of Montreal after narrowly rejecting a contract with a two-tier pension plan. Young workers would get a defined contribution plan, not a defined benefit plan. The workers accepted a deal in less than two weeks.
Regina’s Civic Pension Plan
Regina City Council wants its civic employee pension plan switched from defined benefits to defined contribution. The Saskatchewan Superintendent of Pensions even said it was considering cancelling the plan. Regina City Council voted against increasing contributions after the 2008 crash, breaking its own bylaws and provincial law in the process. Some 4,000 workers and 2,000 retirees, including firefighters, librarians, bus drivers, and other city workers, are fighting back. CUPE, the Amalgamated Transit Union, Saskatchewan Union of Nurses, and the Regina Professional Fire Fighters Association are campaigning together to defend the plan.
Quebec’s Municipal Pension Plan
The Quebec Liberals wants workers to carry more of the burden for the provincial municipal workers pension plan. Workers are now hounding politicians across the province, and the leaders of the Montreal white collar municipal union has not ruled out a strike. On August 18, firefighters stormed City Hall, disrupted a council meeting and carried a banner “Coderre Voleur,” describing Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre as a thief. The fight is heating up.
What Next for the Temporary Foreign Worker Program?
The Conservative government has taken a beating over the last twelve months for its handling of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP). But despite the endemic abuse of foreign workers and the TFWP by employers across the country, the hasty “Canadians first” reforms introduced by Minister of Employment, Jason Kenney following a series of public relations scandals have done little to improve conditions of employment, or status for migrant workers.
In fact, the recent changes have served to exploit divisions between foreign and Canadian workers just as low-wage sectors like food services and accommodations have become the leading employers of TFWs. Nor has the government shifted away from its commitment to an employer-driven immigration and labour market policy.
The response by organized labour, meanwhile, has been mixed. The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) has a longstanding history of organizing immigrant and foreign workers, and also in establishing collective agreement language that commits employers to supporting the paths to citizenship for employees. On the other hand, the B.C. Federation of Labour called for a boycott of McDonald’s when it was discovered that a handful of franchises were giving preferential shifts to TFWs at the expense of Canadian workers.
Still, unions and labour federations have taken the lead on advocating for the rights of TFWs even if the messaging about whether or not foreign workers have a place in the economy is inconsistent.
So what should be done with the TFWP? RankandFile.ca’s interviews with foreign workers, activists with Montreal’s Immigrant Workers Centre, union organizers, and former Canada Labour Congress officials indicate that unions and policy makers have an important role to play in developing meaningful changes to the constellation of foreign and migrant worker programs.
It’s also crucial that the voices of foreign labour be included in the discussion on what should be done with the TFWP. These changes must involve a strict enforcement of employment standards at the federal and provincial levels, along with legislation that protects the rights of foreign workers and immigrants against nefarious employers, consultants, and recruiters in Canada and abroad. Governments must also ensure that a list of abusers is made available to the public.
Whatever changes are considered, these reforms must advance labour rights along with the mobility rights of all peoples. Organized labour can play a pivotal role through advocacy, organizing, education, and mobilization.
Fighting the Cuts at Canada Post
The proposed cuts at Canada Post – increased postage, 8,000 jobs cut, and ending home mail delivery – are just the latest assaults on our public services in Canada. The cuts will affect every community in Canada, meaning opposition has the potential to be built in every community. Over five million Canadians are going to lose home delivery, and polls consistently show they are not happy about it.
Since Canada Post announced the cuts on December 11, 2013, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) and its allies have taken action to stop the end of home mail delivery. Protests, pickets, occupations at MP offices, canvassing, town halls and other creative actions to stop the cuts have occurred across the country. These actions have resulted in declarations of support by local and federal politicians. They have also achieved small but important victories such as the removal of community mailboxes in places such as Fort McMurray.
However, the fight to stop the cuts at Canada Post remains uneven and sporadic. While certain regions across the country have done remarkable work, the overall campaign has not come together to translate the popular opinion against the cuts into a broader movement. This fall, Canada Post will be rolling out community mailboxes in 11 postal codes across the country, with more to follow next year.
Buying time by slowing down the installation of community mailboxes will be key to building a broader movement. The planting of trees on proposed community mailbox locations by CUPW activists is but just one way to accomplish this. The recent announcement that Canada Post will require a doctor’s note to continue home mail delivery has not only outraged the public, but presents an opportunity to gum up management’s plans. Activists should be organizing community members to get doctor’s notes as part of their routine canvassing.
Any successful campaign against the cuts will be a blend of smaller local efforts and national days of action (the latter has been something that has largely been missing). Canvassing, petitions and mail-ins must be used to build community support while large demos and coordinated office occupations are needed to galvanize and consolidate support. CUPW must take a more forceful lead in coordinating these efforts. Workplace action to defend public services cannot be left out of the equation.
While the fight to stop the cuts has been valiant so far, much more is needed. This is still a winnable fight, but it requires national coordination and serious resources from CUPW, the broader labour movement and its allies.