Last month, more than 20,000 'inside' city workers of CUPE Local 79 were presented with a tentative agreement negotiated by their elected leadership that they were told was "the best we could get". This agreement, which included such concessions as wage increases below the rate of inflation and cuts to long-term disability pay, along with no notable improvements, was notable for the complete removal of historic anti-contracting out language originally won in 1999. This sell out is only the latest in a series of defeats for the labour movement over the past few years, highlighting the absence of leadership despite the willingness of the rank and file to fight to the end.
The tentative agreement, reached on March 3 rd , followed on the heels of a nearly identical agreement negotiated by CUPE 416 on behalf of the 'outside' city workers on February 19. Both inside and outside workers had previously managed to protect their anti-contracting out language against Mel Lastman in 2002, who inaccurately called it "jobs for life", and again against David Miller in the 2009 strike. Facing the reactionary Rob Ford administration in 2012, the union leadership sold out younger workers by allowing job security to be eliminated for those with less than fifteen years on the job. Upstaging themselves now, they have capitulated almost entirely without a fight, and any worker who has not reached more than fifteen years seniority by 2019 will no longer have any protection against being contracted out at any point during their employment.
This result is likely to be particularly demoralizing for the 700 garbage collectors of CUPE 416, who having already survived the contracting out of garbage collection in the Western half of the city under Ford, now face the prospect of wholesale privatization across the entire city under the right-wing John Tory mayoralty. It is appropriate not to speak of bad leadership in this instance but of no leadership whatsoever, as the local has not even had an elected leadership and has been under administration of CUPE national for over a year! This predicament was precipitated as a result of local president Mark Ferguson stepping down sometime in 2014 under shadowy circumstances, without any prior announcement. It was subsequently revealed by an internal audit commissioned by CUPE national that the local under Ferguson between 2009 and 2014 "paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in vendor invoices with no approval for payment or proof the local received the goods or services, and paid one man more than $328,000 for call centre and tech support." In addition, it was found that "there were unaccounted for iPads and BlackBerrys; that [secretary-treasurer Darin] Jackson and Ferguson used Local 416 American Express cards for almost $60,000 in purchases with no record of what was bought, and sometimes loaned the cards to other members; and poor accounting practices." While it was already clear that strong strike votes by the membership were being squandered, we now see that this approach was even taken to the internal finances of the union!
Bosses determined to inflict pain, labour leaders stuck in the past
Tim Maguire, current president of CUPE 79 in the recent city negotiations, when interviewed after the tentative agreement had been reached, stated "I think we're in an era of aggressive bargaining by employers. It's unfortunate that there's an aggressive approach being taken even by the City of Toronto in negotiations, reluctant to be partners on good jobs." And aggressive indeed it was. Back on February 27, after talks between the union and the city had broken off, and six days into a work-to- rule campaign, the city responded by going over the heads of the union's bargaining committee and leadership and issuing a “final” offer directly to the public and CUPE 79 membership. Five days later, Tory again issued a provocation, stating that he felt there was little hope for negotiations. This was of course a veiled way of stating that the city was not going to budge on its demands to remove job security, keep wage increases below the rate of inflation, and exact benefits concessions included in their “final” offer. Within twenty- four hours of that statement, negotiations resumed and an agreement was reached which included all of the above demands issued by Tory.
In speaking of being in the midst of an "era of aggressive bargaining", Maguire unwittingly acknowledged the crisis of capitalism and the epoch of austerity under which we currently live. Beginning in Ontario with the Mike Harris provincial government in the 1990s and accelerating since the meltdown of 2008, capitalism has increasingly demanded that public sector workers, being an important bastion of the labour movement and hence a strong pole of resistance to the reduction of wages needed to restore capitalist profitability, be attacked unrelentingly. The contracting out of government jobs to the private sector is one of the most effective ways of achieving this, as it undermines both the labour movement's strength by reducing its membership as well as opening up a new avenues for profitable capitalist investment. Garbage collection is a case in point here, as it has been privatized in the western half of the city. On the one hand, CUPE 416's membership has lost hundreds. On the other hand, wages for private garbage collectors working for the booming Green For Life enterprise now earn only about two-thirds of what city collectors earn, with significantly less in benefits. They would in fact likely be even worse off if it weren't for the city's Fair Wage Policy, which mandates that contractors must pay comparable wages and benefits to its employees.
The second half of Maguire's quote is also highly illustrative, in this case of the ineffective and outdated policy of class collaboration so frequently pursued by conservative labour leaders to this day. In stating, "It's unfortunate that...the City of Toronto...[was] reluctant to be partners on good jobs," Maguire revealed his complete lack of perspective and awareness of the context in which his union was under attack. And this perplexity was present from beginning to end. On February 18, in response to Tory's firm line that "the city will not and cannot give in to demands for more money," Maguire responded "The city said [in 2012] $141 million would be saved over the term of our collective agreements, and yet they're back for more concessions [...] Why again?"
Maguire is confused as to why concessions offered up in the last contract negotiations has only led now to demands for further concessions, as if he has never heard of the maxim that weakness invites aggression. However, that is because he is stuck in the mindset of a previous era, an era in which because capitalism was able to provide healthier rates of growth in the economy, union leaders could at times negotiate deals with the bosses in which the workers could scrape a few extra crumbs off the table to improve their wages, benefits, working conditions and so on. While it could be argued that that era ended with the crises of the 1970s, 2008 has definitively slammed the door shut on it, and now everything that was won during that period is on the chopping block. This is why labour leaders such as Maguire are consistently rebuffed when they take the line of earnestly negotiating for a compromise with government leaders and the bosses. While they may threaten labour action, and are certainly backed up by their membership in doing so, this is typically used in order to gain better leverage to cut a deal with the employer without any real intention of actually leading a strike to win the struggle.
All of the above leads to the inescapable conclusion that class struggle is on the order of the day. Rank and file workers continue to demonstrate at every opportunity a willingness to fight to protect the gains of the past. While their existing leaders have frustrated these aspirations to date, these misleaders will eventually be pushed out and new ones put in place that are closer to the sentiments of the rank and file. Yet this is not enough. As the circumstances that are pushing the bosses to attack the workers without compromise are connected to the crisis of the capitalist system as a whole, a leadership is required which has the perspective of connecting the workers' immediate economic struggles to that of the broader fight to defeat capitalism and bring about an alternative system - that system being socialism.