The ground shifted for the Canadian labour movement this week. Monday night 4,000 thousand Air Canada workers walked off the job, joining 50,000 CUPW workers already on rotating strikes. CAW and CUPW-two unions that have made breakthrough gains in past struggles-are blocking further stripping of their pension and benefit plans, and are refusing to agree to lower living standards for new workers.
Of course there have been other important confrontations over contract concessions in recent years, like the strikes against Vale Inco, the City of Windsor and the City of Toronto. But what is happening at Air Canada and Canada Post is different. For one thing, the disputes impact every part of the country. Second, both the CAW and CUPW bargaining units fall under federal jurisdiction and have forced Harper's Conservative government to openly reveal its contempt of workers' rights and collective bargaining.
But what is most important about the CAW and CUPW disputes is they demonstrate that union members are willing and able to take on a fight. Workers at US Steel in Hamilton, represented by USWA 1005, were locked out last November because they refused to agree to a new contract without a good pension plan. Many in and out of the labour movement saw their struggle, now in its eighth month, as a losing battle. Shamefully, it has fallen off the radar. But now two other powerful unions with militant histories are also taking a stand giving impetus to others to do the same.
The Conservative government will use its majority in Parliament to force Air Canada and postal workers back to work. No doubt the legislation will be brutally anti-worker and anti-union. But the strikes, short as they will likely be, have raised the bar for the rest of us. Unions should be about raising expectations and that is what CAW and CUPW have done. It will be much more difficult from now on for any union to give into employer concessions without a fight. As the fights multiply, so too will the victories
This story first appeared in Union Post.
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