Solidarity Now, Or Else

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Our lives are complicated. We go to work, we consume, we travel, we get sick, go to school, drive cars, get counselling, ride public transit and send our kids to daycare. We like these activities to go smoothly. When we wait for a bus, we like it to show up. When we put our garbage out, we like it to be picked up.

Without predictability, our lives become unmanageable. If one or more of the services we count on breaks down, some of us break down with it.

Yet, the machinery does break down — sometimes because of bureaucratic snafus or because somebody didn’t show up and sometimes because a small-minded government decided that spending less money was more important than your health or your child.

The past half-century has witnessed the expansion of a social complex that provides us with public services. Fortunately for Canadians, many services here are still truly public — users can expect some degree of equity and accountability. It’s not perfect, but, for most of us, it beats for-profit daycare and private health care where business interests compete against and often outweigh social interests.

Like any complex system, our public service system is riddled with politics. The disbursement of resources and power is uneven. Squeaky wheels get the oil, on so on. Today, the pull of corporate influence on public priorities is becoming more and more obvious.

It goes like this. Private corporations noticed that public service activities can be profit generators, if administered the right way. Right-leaning governments noticed that providing public services is, well, hard. As corporate globalization restructures public and private life, the for-profit, private sector makes inroads into our vast social complex.

Fans of neo-liberalism applaud the development. They assert that private economies are more efficient than public sector economies. What they really mean is that profits should be subsidized by lower pay and fewer benefits for workers and by degraded services. You know, they’re for — how to put it nicely? — upward distribution of wealth. Then they point the finger at public sector compensation as the cause of the whole mess. (As in, by asking for more money, job security and reasonable work hours, public sector collective bargaining is working against the public interest and screwing you, the taxpayer.)

It’s a nice trick. As wealthy individuals and corporations get let off the tax hook with loopholes and trade deals, the public pot dwindles. The die is cast for resentment over public sector compensation, portrayed as an impediment to more daycare, education, health care and garbage collection. Consumers’ interests are seen to be in conflict with workers’ interests.

O.K. Sometimes the interests of workers and consumers do conflict — you know, like “Boy I really like cheap airfares; it’s too bad those flight attendants are paid so poorly.” But not so much in the public sector. More often than not, the public sector worker is the service. In other words, if your daycare provider, nurse, teacher or social worker is tired or has to moonlight to make ends meet or is frustrated by unworkable working conditions, the service suffers.

Public sector unions protect the worker as well as the service from the willy-nilly, erratic behaviour of politicians who, all too often, dance to the tune of large campaign contributors who benefit from privatization. Unions also help set the benchmark for reasonable working conditions for all workers.

Since the 1950s, public sector unions have been applying collective bargaining practices to public sector work. Your local union fights — and, yes, sometimes strikes — for things like no-contracting-out clauses and other fetters to privatization. Oh, those nasty union rules do get in the way.

It was no surprise that the first major change to provincial labour law in Ontario made by Mike Harris’s Tories in 1995 eliminated successor rights in the public sector. Successor rights guarantee the inclusion of the union and the continuation of the collective agreement in the event of a sale of all or part of an enterprise. In B.C., Gordon Campbell’s Liberal government rushed through legislation this January that rolled back workers’ rights in the province, eliminating seniority and successor rights, overruling existing contracts and prohibiting unions from negotiating lay-off provisions, severance or contracting-out from that day forward.

Labour law changes like this make purchasing a public sector activity even more appealing. After all, no self-respecting large corporation wants to inherit a collective agreement. Now, they don’t have to.

What distinguishes public sector collective bargaining is that the conflict between the employer and some of its employees, while driven by economic issues, also has a political component. In this era of belt-tightening, governments are lowering all public standards — regulation, services, education, health as well as working conditions — and increasing the cost to you through user fees. (So much for lower taxes.)

What stands in the way of privatization are some unions and some of their members. By engaging in collective bargaining, they are holding the line on the public space.

The upsurge in public sector strikes we are now witnessing comes as restructuring and privatization become more prevalent. If a collective agreement can hold back one privatization or downsize or shutdown, the public also wins. That’s me and that’s you.

Yes, public sector strikes are inconvenient. You wait for the bus; it never comes. You send your kids to school; the school sends them back. Strikes upset the fine balance of our over-complicated lives. But it’s a comfort to remember that the collective agreement they’re striking over might protect a public service you enjoy.

Next time you see a picket line, you might even try joining it. The inconvenience is worth the struggle. The public sector is our big achievement of the past century. It’s worth our while to support the unions and the workers who are fighting to preserve it.

Just think of the whiff of uncollected garbage as the sensuous aroma of class struggle.

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