I attended a public meeting called "Fighting for a fair deal: public sector workers resist concession". Carolyn Egan, president of the Toronto District Council of the United Steelworkers, and David Kidd, Vice-President and Chief Steward of striking CUPE local 79, were the speakers. Following their talk, there was an excellent discussion of what this strike means for all of us, and how we can support it.
I learned some very useful facts, but mostly the meeting helped me articulate what I already know and feel.
The most important takeaway: hold the line.
The working class is being made to pay for a flawed system it didn't create. Hundreds of thousands of jobs have been lost, and jobs that remain are shrinking in value. Toronto Mayor David Miller wants to use this economic crisis as an excuse to roll back hard-won labour gains. He wants concessions. He wants give-backs.
My employer has cut staff benefits in a way that seriously impacts our quality of life. And because we're private sector, non-union employees, it was done unilaterally: take it or leave it.
When the economy improves, will those benefits be restored? Only the very young or the very naive think so. The lower standard will become the new normal.
Because once you lose benefits - once you give concessions - you never get them back.
The striking CUPE workers are on the front lines of a fight for good jobs for all of us.
Hold the line.
The striking day care, sanitation, parks and recreation employees, and others are holding the line against a drive to save money by eroding the quality of their jobs - and our quality of life.
They have been negotiating since February, with the City trying to renege on its own promises. If these workers are finally worn down by management and public pressure, their concessions will trigger a feeding frenzy in municipalities all across Canada. If the largest city in the country can get away with this, it will signal open season on workers.
And when the public sector gets away with it, the private sector, always eager to cut costs at workers' expense, will feel even more entitled to slash pay and benefits than they do now.
When city workers' job standards and quality of life falls, standards for all workers will fall.
Rather than sneer, "I don't have that, why should they?" - essentially advocating for a race to the bottom - we could ask, "Could I have that, too? Could more employers offer that benefit? Is my labour - my brain - my strength - my talent - not worthy of that benefit?"
Hold the line.
Toronto settled its contracts equitably with parking employees, with EMS, with transit, fire and police. Sanitation workers want only what every other union has already gotten. They want their contract honoured.
Other municipal workers received "3/3/3" - a 3% pay increase in each of the next three years. The sanitation workers have been offered 0/1/1.
The workers of these two CUPE locals earn an average of $40-45,000 a year. That puts them squarely in the working class, the lower-middle class if you will. It's not a bad living, but you can't sell that as rich. If you live within that income bracket, that small cost-of-living increase can be the difference between a manageable budget, and a stressful, precarious life.
Another important issue in the fight is seniority. Workers who have accrued a certain amount of hours have the ability to choose their own shifts. For many people, that means being able to work the day shift as one is aging and less able to stay up all night. That "benefit" - I hesitate to call it that, as it seems so basic - is threatened, too.
When you take a sick day, is it a day with full pay? The CUPE workers have their first three sick days with full pay, but the fourth is at 75% pay, and the fifth at 50% pay. They can either use part of a vacation day to make up the difference, or manage without the pay. Would you like that? I wouldn't.
And what about the banked sick days, that issue that seems to get under the public's skin like a bad rash? Last night at the meeting and today on the picket line, I spoke to people who used their banked sick days when they had cancer. If you are unlucky enough to get cancer, would you like to have a job when you return? Would you like to be paid while you're sick? I sure would. Bankable sick days is a form of a short-term disability plan.
In previous negotiations, the City of Toronto wanted bankable sick days: it's an incentive to keep attendance high. Bankable sick time keeps people from doing what I do with my few measly, use-them-or-lose-them sick days: I use them whether I'm sick or not.
But more importantly, the option to cash in unused sick days upon retirement was also what the City of Toronto wanted: it represents deferred wage increases. In other words, the union agreed to go without wage increases during several negotiations in the 1980s and 1990s, in return for this cash-in option. And now that it's time to pay up, the City wants to change the terms of the contract.
How would you feel if that were done to you?
Hold the line.
Working people didn't create this economic crisis, and we shouldn't be made to pay for it. Of course, many of us are being made to pay for it - my quality of life has declined while my employer turns a profit, and there isn't a damn thing I can do about it. But do I want everyone to have that same unilateral, crappy deal? The fewer people who suffer, the better! The better for all of us, economically and in terms of our quality of life in our cities and towns.
I've heard people incensed that sanitation workers have "the nerve" to call themselves essential services, like fire, transit or police. If trash collection wasn't an essential service, why would anyone care that they are on strike? Is day care an essential service? Are parks and recreation essential? They are essential to maintaining a liveable city.
Many of these CUPE workers do jobs that are tough and dirty. They are on the front lines of public health, exposed to potential disease and contagion at every turn. (That's another reason they need good sick benefits.) If you think sanitation work is a cushy job, I ask: Do you want to do it? If you think $40,000 a year is too high for trash collection, how much would you want to be paid to do it?
These are the people who keep our cities livable. They deserve a decent life. They are not asking to buy a second home and drive a BMW. They are asking for a decent working life and a safe old age.
Hold the line.
Workers didn't pay million dollar bonuses, outsource jobs to boost shareholder profits, deregulate the banking industry, or invent Ponzi schemes.
Workers didn't change the rules so that only 45% of unemployed people in Canada are eligible for Employment Insurance. (In Toronto, that figure plummets to a shocking 25%.)
We hear that everybody "must tighten their belts" and be "team players". But is everyone doing this belt tightening, or only the people who already live on tight budgets? Who can most afford such cinching, the worker who lives paycheque to paycheque on a per-hour wage, or the six- and seven-figure earner?
Management, and the media who serve their interests, love to pit workers against each other. But we don't have to buy what they're selling. I've heard much evidence that there is more support for striking workers than immediately meets the eye. As someone said at last night's meeting, "You think the barrier between the strikers and the general public is very thick, but you talk a little - it doesn't take much, a few minutes is all - and you see the barrier is in fact very thin, and easily broken down."
Friends of mine held signs reading "We Support City Workers" at last weekend's Dyke March, and heard cheers and raised fists all day. I'm told the majority of callers on Rex Murphy's recent "Cross Country Check-Up" were pro-union. A CityTV poll clocked support at 50%. Maybe we're not all swallowing the company line.
Hold the line.
One familiar refrain is that the striking workers are "lucky to have jobs". Working is better than unemployment, yes. But does that mean the City shouldn't honour its own contracts?
We working people give of ourselves every day.
In bad times, our bosses come to us and ask us to give a little more.
In good times, do they come to us and give us a little back?
They do not.
Last weekend, when my co-workers bad-mouthed the strikers, I asked them to imagine how our own lives might have been improved if we were unionized. Wouldn't it have been wonderful to have someone (maybe me!) negotiate for all of us? Wouldn't it have been better to have a contract our employers could be held to honour - something that spelled out our job duties and work load and pay increases - rather than being subject to the whims of management? Wouldn't we like bankable sick days and a 3% annual increase if we could get it?
Isn't it better that someone has a fair deal, rather than nobody?
One of my co-workers has young children. Another has children just entering the workforce. And another is herself a young woman on her first job. I asked them, do you want there to be good jobs available for you, and for your children? Or should all the jobs be casual, part-time, no benefits, pay increases, security?
Hold the line.
Every progressive activist must look at this struggle as their own.
Each one, reach one. Each one, teach one.
Get on board behind the striking city workers, and make your voice heard.
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