The assault on public services – how can the unions fight back?

Canadian trade unionists Michael Hurley and Sam Gindin propose new strategies for a labour movement facing new challenges

October 6, 2011 · 19 min read

We are living through one of those historic moments that shout out for rallying the working class to new capacities, new solidarities, and concrete hope. The crucial question is not how far the attacks on the public sector will go; the real question is how far we will let them go. How will working class activists inside and outside the unions respond? Do we have a counter-plan? Are we preparing one? Can we act as decisively as those attacking us?

What’s at stake is not just a new round of concessions. The aftermath of the deepest capitalist crisis since the Great Depression has provided political and economic elites with an opportunity to lock-in two longer-term changes: a reduction and privatization in public services on a scale not seen before, and – with private sector unions devastated by job loss and unable to significantly expand unionization – weakening the remaining stronghold of unionism, public sector workers.

The attack on public services is commonly posed in terms of ‘cutbacks’, but it’s crucial to also link it to privatization. For some time now corporations have been chomping at the bit to profit from public services and this has emerged independent of whether there are deficits or not. Governments have been moving to accommodate this by restructuring how these services are organized and delivered so that they can, piecemeal if necessary, be privatized.

The crisis in government finances is being used to accelerate this trend. The end result will be losing services that aren’t privately profitable and sacrificing quality and access – while paying more – for the health care, garbage collection, utilities, mail, and all the other services we will then need to buy (or still finance through our taxes).

An effective response requires a movement much stronger than what we currently have. This gets to the second issue: the attack on unions. We obviously need to fight back. We know from experience that if we don’t, that only invites the other side to be even more aggressive. But given what we are up against – a state committed to radically changing the rules – it’s also clear that ‘business as usual’, even if more militant, won’t be enough. We need to engage this struggle in new ways and this means re-evaluating everything about our own structures, processes and strategies.

Strategic Choices: Leading the Fight for Public Services

Unions emerged as sectional, not class, organizations. They united workers in a particular workplace or sector and focused on making gains for those particular members. In an earlier time, this achieved important benefits that were subsequently spread to others beyond the unionized sector. But when circumstances changed and corporations and governments concluded that working class gains had to be reversed to preserve profits, we were ill prepared to address their new aggression. The legacy of concentrating on our own compensation and conditions left us fragmented and vulnerable to the latest attacks.

Governments have been exploiting that weakness for some time and are now more aggressively trying to use fiscal deficits to isolate public sector workers. This involves framing the choice as being between the level of worker compensation and the level of public services. With the rest of the working class taking it on the chin, the fact that the public sector remains relatively well-off aggravates the danger of its separation from the rest of the class.  The retreats in the private sector, the cutbacks in employment insurance and increase in precarious work, the continuously falling rates of social assistance, all leave public sector workers open to resentment.

To argue that we’ve always supported better social services, point to our progressive conference resolutions and insist that the rich should be taxed to pay for decent services and fair compensation is all valid, but won’t convince those we need to reach. Our commitment must be proven in practice, through the priorities we set and carry out. This means making a strategic choice: we must re-balance our focus from traditional collective bargaining to identifying the defense of public services as a primary priority and take on – in bargaining, in our relationships to service recipients, in how we carry out strikes, and on the streets – the leadership of the fight for adequate, high-quality and responsive social services.

It’s important to be clear about what such a reorientation means. It will require radical changes to all our strategies, tactics and structures. It implies reallocating union resources, building new local and sectoral as well as national capacities, a profound deepening of membership participation, rethinking how we relate to the community, daring to publicly expose poor services while speaking to how they could be improved, and developing the confidence and vision to move beyond fighting on ‘their’ terrain – a terrain on which competitiveness and keeping bankers happy dominates all other values. It essentially involves, to put it bluntly, a revolution inside our unions.

Many activists and leaders will be nervous about such a transformation in union life. Given the union culture they’ve grown up in, they may view this as ‘trading’ off their entitlements for a worthy but secondary cause. The reality however is that first, the level and quality of public services are hardly a ‘secondary’ issue; they represent the crucial contribution public sector workers make to the rest of society. Second, improving the level and quality of services are inseparable from improving our workloads and working conditions. And third, we need to come to grips with the fact that as things stand, though we need to continue to defend our past gains and may win some short-term battles, we can’t win the war unless we broaden our struggle, no matter how legitimate our demands.

Trade unionism as usual will only lead to public sector workers becoming even more cut off and vulnerable. Developing the strength to defend our jobs and conditions can only come from getting a key part of the public on our side. If we can’t find ways to develop this kind of public support – especially from other sections of the working class, be they unionized or non-unionized, fully employed or precariously employed, unemployed or the poor – we won’t get very far in sustaining our wage demands and benefits, raising the standards of lower-paid members, or defending working conditions.

Moreover, while the primary focus of unions has been on bargaining collective agreements and resolving workplace grievances, the attack is now coming directly from the state. It will come on many fronts at the same time – from attacking seniority rights of teachers, to privatizing health care services, to limiting the right to strike. This reinforces the limits of struggles confined to our own particular workplaces, sectors and unions. Those struggles can only have a chance of widespread success if taken on as a class, alongside the rest of labour and new allies.

Facing Austerity: Social Democracy Won’t Solve our Problems

The social cuts and attacks on union rights that we’ve already seen in Canada from politicians of all stripes are clearly going to get worse. The more aggressive cuts in the US can be expected to bring mounting pressures for the same here. We, of course, already have our own home-grown politicians and economic elites ready to lead that charge. With a right-wing populist as mayor of Canada’s largest city, a confident conservative government having recently won a majority nationally, and a tax-cutting, programme-chopping anti-union party leading in the polls as Canada’s most populous province, Ontario, heads for a fall election, it would be foolish to underestimate what we are about to face.

The Ontario conservatives’ platform includes compulsory tendering of support services across the public sector – everything will be up for sale. Legislation would presumably be introduced to over-ride collective agreement provisions that would otherwise obstruct such tendering. (Since the constitution blocks this being done unilaterally, this would most likely follow a period of so-called ‘consultation’ with public sector unions to protect against a legal challenge.)

Should this become a reality, support workers such as cleaners and food service staff would be ‘allowed’ (encouraged) to bid against corporations for their jobs – which could only be done by agreeing to significantly cut labour costs to compete in this new market, including not just wages but benefits and defined benefit contribution plans. Those who don’t compete lose their jobs under this proposal.  Because the proposed tendering policy targets support workers while at the same time protecting teachers and nurses (for now!), the Conservative’s platform also threatens to divide the unions.

One response from unions may be to simply ignore or downplay the threat. Another response will be to look to political parties as the answer, but past experience and experience elsewhere have already shown that making this central would be a diversion from what truly needs to be done. We can fight within social democratic parties to win more progressive policies and use the moments of heightened political discussion that elections provide to highlight our issues, but very much more is needed.

‘Politics’ needs to be redefined as building the kind of working class organizations and capacities that can ensure that our needs are taken seriously.  This means public sector unions using their significant resources to advance a political agenda that includes the entire working class. No existing party is committed to a fundamental challenge to financial and corporate power. No party is arguing that in a society that is so much richer than it was a generation ago, workers should be raising not lowering their expectations. No party is looking to develop the working class into a powerful social force. No existing political party will save us.

Building a Labour Movement That is Up to the Task

If the only thing that will prevent  public sector workers from being defeated in the coming battles will be our resolve to engage in militant action, intelligently and creatively deployed to build public support, then how do we build that kind of movement?

The crucial starting point is to acknowledge the weaknesses within our own organizations – weaknesses that pre-date the present attacks. (There are of course pockets of impressive strength in our movement, but it seems fair to say that these are exceptions.) Our weaknesses range from debilitating cultures of bureaucratization to thin and ineffective democracy, inadequate expressions of class solidarity and little strategic sense of how to respond to the great changes that have occurred over the past three decades.

This is what workers and worker activists should be discussing now. How do we move into motion to fight the most immediate battles, but do so in a way that also builds the capacities we’ll need to expand our options and fight the larger battles? How do we get this on the agenda of our unions and push them to come up with concrete implementation plans and timetables?

As we struggle with renewing our unions there are past and present trade union experiences and examples that are worth reviewing and learning from.

  • In the mid-1990s, the Ontario Days of Action introduced an internationally unique form of protest. Confronted with massive cuts to social programs and the erosion of labour legislation, unions and social movements worked together in an imaginative and disciplined spirit to hold a series of one-day general strikes moving into different communities over a 30-month period.

With workers asked to lose a day’s pay and risk employer retaliation, unions were pushed to explain the importance of issues beyond their members’ immediate bargaining interests. And with the press warning of hordes of union organizers coming to their community, local debates intensified over the Harris government’s cuts. One limit was that, after building new labour-community structures in various cities, we didn’t keep them in place after moving on to the next shutdown. It would be worthwhile returning to that experience to more generally ask what – both positive and negative – it can teach us about becoming more successful next time.

  • In the early 1990s, when the government tightened unemployment insurance (as it was then called) and pushed its employees to cut more people off from qualifying, the union – the Public Service Alliance of Canada  – found a way of expressing meaningful solidarity. It put together pamphlets on how to answer questions so it was harder to block people from being disqualified and, since the front-line workers couldn’t distribute them at risk of discipline, the union had other members as well as staff distribute them outside the unemployment insurance offices.

  • Also in the early 1990s, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, on strike against their employer, delivered pension checks without pay during that strike to emphasize that that they didn’t consider retirees the enemy. When the government stopped this and forced pensioners to line up at a warehouse to get their checks, the Postal Workers came down not to picket, but to hand out water and offer lawn chairs to pensioners standing in long lines in the heat.

  • Could transit workers who are engaged in a dispute show their support for free and accessible transit by not collecting fares before withdrawing their services and refusing to police the paying of fares (in the name of health and safety) if they are denied the right to strike?  Could garbage workers defending the public provision of the essential service they provide take the lead in redirecting garbage bags to the financial district rather than to our parks when their service is interrupted, or selectively picking up the garbage to exclude the richest areas of the city? Such tactics might not be sustainable, but they demonstrate whose side we’re on and that strikes that affect the public as a whole are only reluctantly taken.

It is also worth asking, as the attacks on us escalate, whether it makes sense to leave it to each union in the public sector to go on strike according to their own schedule and strength. In most cases, such strikes will quickly be made illegal or ended through public pressures but even where the occasional union holds its own, they will become the target for isolation and more intensive pressures for rollbacks later. Wouldn’t it be better, in the strategic spirit raised above, of coordinating a larger response of rotating strikes across sectors and creative disruptions in each sector?

 One idea discussed within CUPE (Canadian Union of Public Employees) goes further. Its Ontario hospital division, OCHU has been conducting provincial demonstrations and many community fights against hospital service cuts, but understands that more pressure is essential to defend the hospitals from closure and privatization. Withdrawing labour to defend hospital services seems contradictory, so the question was how to act in a way that avoids or limits negative impacts on patient care and the consequent loss of public support. Union activists are now discussing the possibility of experimenting with a new tactic: a work-in rather than a walk-out – a counter-strike. Members who are off work would to come in to work at a specific time to highlight the crushing workloads and the large cuts to staff and beds in Ontario (19,000 beds over the last 20 years in Ontario, while needs were growing).

This approach would demonstrate the kind of services that could be provided if these services were in fact a social priority.  The actions could be rotated across communities, concretely demonstrating the reluctance of workers to withdraw their services and their commitment to their clients, while putting management on the spot publicly. In placing the level of services on the bargaining table, the union would be both challenging management rights and politicizing bargaining in the sense of challenging the state’s pressure for cutbacks.

The work-in seems to pit the members’ traditional entitlements against the defense of the service. But that is also its strength because it can only be discussed successfully in the context of the austerity agenda and the need for approaches that build alliances with the public.  That activists remain skeptical about this tactic is understandable. Some see it as a betrayal of the basic principle that union strength is about withdrawing labour, not working for free; to others, the contrast with past tactics raises new complexities and uncertainties; and some are uncomfortable with the added pressures this would bring to educate and mobilize the members.

It therefore requires the union to convince activists that it will both provide central coordination and also resources for local mobilization, as members will have to be won over to the tactic in unit and department meetings. In any case, just raising this issue has forced the need for broader membership involvement in the debate over strategy. It will go forward but as an experiment in one community, which will be followed by analysis and more discussion.

One of the key ongoing questions facing the union movement – all the more so as private services expand at the expense of publicly-organized services – is that of unionization.  In the US, unionization in the private sector is now under 7 per cent and even including the public sector it has now fallen below 12 per cent. Though our union density remains much higher than that of the US, the American figures are an uncomfortable warning about our future. Because unionization is approached as a matter of gaining members rather than building the working class, unions increasingly compete for those members rather than co-operating to bring some organizational strength to groups of workers. This wastes resources and often also leads to unions undermining each other’s drives.

Consider, for example, Ontario’s homecare system. There are approximately 20,000 unorganized homecare workers in Ontario. After the Conservative government introduced compulsory tendering for homecare services in the 1990s, non-union multinational corporations with much lower labour costs largely displaced the not-for-profit unionized agencies. Unions that successfully organized homecare workers found that their new units were lost the next time the contract was tendered because of their higher costs and this generally discouraged unionization.

The compensation of private homecare workers – $12.50 an hour, no guaranteed hours of work, no pensions or benefits – is accelerating the movement of work away from the unionized hospital and long-term care sectors. It’s an example of an organizing dilemma that likely can only be solved through cooperative organizing by multiple unions with a sector-wide focus. The point would be to pool our resources, organize all of the unorganized agencies at once, bargain as a council of trade unions, bring the state rather than the individual corporations to the bargaining table, and use militant action to move these workers to compensation comparable with the public sector. But that kind of strategy is conditional on first going a much further way towards changing our unions.

Conclusion: Concrete Hope

In the 1930s, in the midst of the Great Depression and with unemployment rates over 20 per cent, workers ‘invented’ an industrial unionism that overcame divisions between skilled and unskilled workers. They introduced the tactic of sit-down strikes, initiated there own democratic structures via elected stewards and generated industry-wide pattern bargaining. Those breakthroughs were largely responsible for later bringing us many of our social services and benefits and, in the 1960s, the breakthroughs of organizing in the public sector by workers tired of government paternalism. That public sector breakthrough also created vitally significant new opportunities for women and revived the trade union movement more generally.

In that earlier period, capitalism legitimated itself by offering steady material gains, the promise of greater equality, a more meaningful democracy, and a quality of life that went beyond the pressures of economic survival. That era is over. Today, the message is that if you don’t like the way things are, tough – you have no alternative. The real lesson of course is that if the present economic system can’t offer us a better life, then it is that system, not our expectations that needs changing.

Previous generations of workers came up with creative responses to the challenges they faced. It’s now our turn – the turn of the great number of committed activists in the labour movement – to start truly taking on these issues within their unions,  build networks of support across unions and across communities, and convert widespread frustrations into concrete hope.


Michael Hurley is President of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions, a division of CUPE.

Sam Gindin is a retired former assistant to the president of the CAW, Canada’s largest private sector union.

(A version of this article first appeared in the Socialist Project “Bullet”, June 14, 2011)

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