After 39 days on the picket line the 24,000 members of CUPE locals 416 and 79 have achieved an important victory. This strike was the first major confrontation between workers trying to hold the line, and the bosses trying to make the public sector pay for their economic crisis. Management placed 118 pages of concessions on the table which, in the words of CUPE 416 President Mark Ferguson, were all beaten back. Over the focal issue of banking sick days the union gave some ground, but nowhere near the capitulation that corporate interests were pushing. The results of the strike have important repercussions for the fightback against capitalism’s economic crisis.
On 31st July, Toronto City Council voted 21 to 17 to approve the deals with CUPE civic workers. The right wing councillors were outraged at Mayor David Miller’s “capitulation to the unions.” They stated that the final deal could have been reached before the strike and that Toronto residents have been put through piles of garbage, no day-care, no pools, and no parks, recreation and public health services for nothing. In this case, despite the hypocrisy of the right wing who do not care about these services, the mayor’s opponents are correct. This deal could have been achieved without a strike. Miller was elected on a left ticket of decent public services and respect for public sector workers. By fomenting this strike he revealed his allegiance to business interests and betrayed the workers, just like Bob Rae before him.
The deal gives workers a 6% wage increase over three years, recognition of an extra statutory holiday (Family Day), and some improvements in shift premiums. On the issue of banked sick days, the deal grandfathers the old arrangement of up to 18 sick days a year being banked for a pay-out of up to six months pay at retirement. New hires will be placed in a short term disability plan which existing workers can choose to opt-into after receiving a buyout. This plan seems to be relatively equivalent to those present in other bargaining units and, unlike the sick bank, is also available to part-time and temporary workers. Concessions on the grievance procedure, post-retirement benefits, job postings, and seniority were all beaten back. It is not a rich deal, and the sick plan is a minor retreat, but the workers must be congratulated on holding the line against a massive corporate onslaught that said that the status quo was unsustainable in the current economic crisis.
Toronto city workers have shown that you can fight back and win against concessions, unlike the leadership of the Canadian Auto Workers that gave away the farm in negotiations with the so-called Big Three automakers. However, there are also important lessons to be learned from this strike. The union and NDP leaderships did a terrible job of explaining the issues to the public. The majority opinion was against the strike and against the union. While this strike shows that workers do not necessarily have to be popular to win, being more popular definitely wouldn’t have hurt. In a similar situation in Windsor, the right-wing council demonized the workers and starved them back, defeated after 101 days on the picket line. If Miller was more secure in his corporate backing, there could have been a similar result in Toronto. The right-wing demagogically leaned on non-union private sector workers saying “Why should these union workers have a sick bank when you have no benefits and are losing your job?” Unfortunately, the union leaderships had no response to this attempt to set the unorganized workers against the organized. After decades of giving up the struggle to organize the unorganized, unions can appear like a bastion of elitism and privilege to the most downtrodden.
The unions and the NDP need to launch a campaign right now to raise class consciousness. Rather than letting the right-wing enforce the rhetoric of the race to the bottom, the unions need to raise the sights and the unity of the working class. Rather than being content to represent a privileged layer of the working class, the unions must campaign to raise the conditions of all workers, both within and outside the unions, while combining this campaign with mass organizing efforts. The victory for the Toronto civic workers is a victory for all workers in that it raises the bar for all. In response to those who complained, “Why should city workers get benefits that we don’t have,” we should reply that all workers must have decent wages, benefits, and conditions necessary to raise a family. Why is there money to bail out the bosses and bankers, but no money left for decent conditions for workers? If the unions and the NDP launch such a fightback campaign,to maintain and improve the position of all working class families, it would make a huge difference every time workers enter into struggle. Instead of a strike being seen as an action by a “greedy bunch of lazy union workers,” it will instead be a part of a wider struggle for decent conditions for all. Free education, universal childcare, and other similar demands must be a component part of this campaign to stop the corporate media and politicians from setting worker against worker.
In the coming months and years there will be more and more attacks on workers as the bosses try to make us pay for their crisis. They are howling so much about the Toronto strike because they are afraid that it will be a “bad” example to other workers. Over 2000 Inco nickel miners in Sudbury are also on strike after the company is using the crisis to enforce concessions. This struggle reaches into the heart of the community. We can expect many similar disputes, especially in the municipal, provincial, and federal public sectors. Only by struggling, like the members of CUPE 416 and 79, can workers hope to maintain their living standards. At the end of the day it is possible that the right-wing are telling the truth – capitalism cannot afford decent wages and conditions. If this situation is true, then workers are faced with two choices: either accept minimum wage employment with no ability to raise a family under capitalism, or fight for a socialist society that can provide full employment and decent conditions for all.