CUPE Ontario delegates and supporters gathered Thursday at Commerce Court, in the heart of Toronto’s financial district, to send a message to the corporate sector: Labour is not to blame for the financial crisis. We are the solution. Now is the time to invest in people.

Maria Smith, president CUPE local 3272, spoke about Matthew’s Memorial Hospital, where three part time CUPE staff serves a small, rural community in northern Ontario, near Sault Ste. Marie, of about 7,000 permanent residents. Some people are up to two hours away from a Sault area hospital.

“Two hours is too much if you have a heart attack, stroke or even an allergic reaction,” said Smith, who is fighting to save Matthews Memorial from closure despite the fact that the hospital represents only .5 per cent of the area total budget. “Their $12M deficit is enormous and closing us isn’t going to make any difference financially.”

But it could seriously impact this territory, where people depend upon Matthews Memorial for their healthcare needs. “Every person is important,” continued Smith. “Every life is important. We need CUPE’s help and appreciate the strength of this organization.”

As Toronto and York District Labour Council representative Helen Kennedy stood under an umbrella outside the CIBC at King and Bay, she recalled the manufacturing base in Toronto “totally decimated by the deregulation and privatization agenda of the federal government.” But several weeks ago, over 2,000 union and community members met in Toronto and pledged solidarity to one another.

“They pledge solidarity on the picket lines, in their struggles to get collective agreements that will be strengthened, not gutted through concession bargaining” she said. Kennedy’s seen tough times for many unions in Toronto, going back to SARS when UNITE HERE was devastated by cuts and layoffs.

Now, as many Steelworkers have been laid off with no chance in the near future of finding another manufacturing job, union activists are prepared to stand up and say: “We are not the problem. Don’t try and fix the economic crisis on our backs. Don’t continue to bail out the banks.”

“You need to look at the workers, so that we can have a decent living for our families, our children and our communities,” said Kennedy.

With approximately 1.3 million Ontarians living in poverty, chronic under funding of healthcare, housing and education and the loss of 174,000 jobs since last October, Canadian Federation of Students chairperson Shelley Melanson declared Ontario under attack. “It’s estimated that over 470,000 Ontarians will be driven into poverty in the next two years,” said Melanson.

“Yet with all this job loss, increased poverty and economic uncertainty, our government has done little or nothing but produce pathetic anti-poverty public relations campaigns.”

While hospitals struggle to maintain basic services, 70,000 families wait for social housing, only 12 per cent of parents have licensed childcare, Melanson said students recognize that fighting for an accessible education is only one part of a broader struggle that unionists and students need to undertake collectively to help rebuild the province.

“The rights of workers to job security, a living wage and benefits have been linked to the quality of our education and the rights of students not to be priced out of their degrees,” she said. “Workers and students are bearing the brunt of the recession through contract concessions and enormous personal debt.”

Accordingly, students are now campaigning for a poverty-free Ontario that would bring together labour, students and community organizations to demand the government invest in social spending. In the mid-90’s, when the Harris government was reducing social spending, coalitions fought in solidarity, said Melanson, and defeated that agenda.

“Dalton McGuinty has failed us,” she said. “The campaign for a poverty-free Ontario seeks to speak with one voice and demand change.”

As the rain began to fall heavily, Sid Ryan strode to the microphone amidst thunderous applause from CUPE Ontario delegates waving their pink flags and holding “Invest in People” banners. Ryan minded the crowd that CUPE Ontario deliberately chose to hold their rally at Commerce Court “to send a signal to the captains of industry that the workers are not going to pay for the sins of the corporate sector – the ones who destroyed the economy.”

Years ago, those same corporate leaders promised Canadians that free trade was going to create more jobs, raise everyone’s standard of living and give more students access to post secondary education. “Now look what’s happened,” said Ryan. “We have a broken economy and thousands of job losses. And now the public sector is under attack in communities across this province.”

In Windsor, said Ryan, the government is using the recession as an excuse to come after benefits that are supposed to look after CUPE members in retirement.

“That’s what free trade brought us,” he said. “That’s what these bastards behind you brought us.”

John Bonnar

John Bonnar is an independent journalist producing print, photo, video and audio stories about social justice issues in and around Toronto.