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The 0 0 0 Sum Game of Business Unionism in Toronto

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
The 0 0 0 Sum Game of Business Unionism in Toronto

Just so we are all clear this post comes from a place of love and concern. I myself am a rank and file member of CUPE 3906. I hope this will spark serious conversation about tactics and strategies within the labour movement to create a more just world…

Honestly I don’t get it.

On the eve of Toronto’s budget battle CUPE 416, representing 6000 outside workers, publicly announced it would be willing to take a 3 year deal that would freeze wages. CUPE 416′s President Mark Ferguson justified the position by stating that the move will save money for services. The union leadership hopes the move to eat a three year wage freeze (which is actually a net loss of wages for workers once inflation has been factored in) will show the public that it is bargaining in good faith. The announcement came just one day after the city claimed that negotiations had broken down and asked the province to issue a No Board Report which means that in 17 days their could be strike or (much more probable) a lockout. On Monday the city said that the wage freeze was not good enough. The City administration is clear, it wants to freeze or reduce wages, but more importantly it wants the ability to more easily outsource jobs. In effect it wants to break the union.

The story of this budget “crisis” goes back to the Toronto garbage strike of 2009. The strike was poorly run both internally and externally. CUPE 416 did a poor job of organizing its members and refused to engage with the broader community to build a supportive coalition. The supposed friendly mayor, cracked down on public sector workers because, well, he was never all that pro-labour. The economic crisis had come to Toronto and Mayor Miller found it convenient to beat up on workers. The strike failed, it sullied the mayor and his supporters, as well as the union. Ford’s mayoral run got a boost as he positioned himself against “greedy” public sector workers. He was a no nonsense free market fiscal conservative. When Ford won the election he immediately set his sights on privatizing parts of Toronto’s garbage service. The fight back on this was weak at best.

After Ford’s scrapping of Transit City and the motor vehicle registration fee the city has manufactured itself into a budget shortfall or “crisis”.  Ford wants to break the unions increase user fees for the TTC and drastically cut social services in the city. The leftist response in Toronto over the past year has been gaining momentum. Ford has become increasingly unpopular (His unpopularity cost the Hudak the Ontario election) and a large anti-cuts movement in Toronto has sprung up. This week the budget is set to pass. A large demonstration has been called in Toronto for Tuesday.

In the larger context the Canadian Labour movement has been facing a serious challenge in the last couple of years. In Ontario workers at Vale and U.S. Steel were locked out for many months and defeated. Workers at EMS in London are facing a 50% wage reduction from a profitable company. Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113 representing York region bus drivers has been on strike since the end of October. In other parts of the country workers have also faced fightback from governments and private companies. In Cape Breton workers at Bowater face massive job losses and deep concessions. Workers at Rio Tinto in Quebec are also under the gun. The industrial actions at Canada Post and Air Canada were also major public defeats for the labour movement.

All over Canada it is the same story. Much focus has been given to the slight dip in union density in Canada (this dip is nowhere near the perilous levels of unionization the U.S.) However, the amount and type of concessions won by employers over the last couple of years is what is truly worrisome. Pension plans are being robbed and defined pension plans are being replaced by defined benefit plans increasing worker insecurity. Wage gains have been less and less and job security is going out the window.

This brings me back to CUPE 416′s move to publicly accept ripple 0’s in its contract. It is hard to see this move as winner. To understand why we must remember the situation in Toronto is a political, not economic, crisis. Budgets are about priorities. Increasing taxes on wealthy home and landowners is an easy way to bring in more money. CUPE’s move at first glance seems like a sly political move to show that it is serious about bargaining in good faith. However, what it does is accept the premise that there is a budget crisis and that raising taxes, even slightly is off the table. It accepts the logic of neoliberalism. The move also creates great difficulty in mobilizing membership. If your union offers 0 0 0, it is hard to really put in a huge fight for nothing. Accepting zeros also shows weakness and only emboldens the other side to ask for more. It is also a half-assed attempt to build a workable coalition with broader community groups. Instead of using the lockout to create a political crisis on council (i.e. Wisconsin) and mobilize workers and community members across the city, the concessions defuse the coalition by accepting the illegitimate premise of crisis politics.

The idea that workers and users of public service should subsidize the inept capitalist class needs to be rejected outright. The union movement must understand business (unionism) as usual is a fantasy. At some point the concessions need to end. We need to fight for more than just a slower trip to hell. We need to put control, democracy and workers’ power back on the agenda. We need to stop patting ourselves on the back for sub-par deals. We need open and honest dialogue and analysis. Now is the time for big visions, anything else is just rearranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship.

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