Austerity and disability: Opposing Bill 83

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A bill passed second reading in the Ontario Legislature on Oct. 28, a bill that is a clear danger to the labour movement's ability to win fair contracts and defend public services. Bill 83, which essentially outlaws picketing outside of group homes that are housing people with intellectual and other disabilities that require home care.

Read carefully, the bill, which was brought forward by Conservative MPP Sylvia Jones, would find not only individual picketers, but also their unions, liable for contravening it. It was mildly opposed by New Democrats Michael Prue and Peter Kormos. The bill itself is written explicitly to "strike a balance" between the rights of union members to take job actions, i.e. "freedom of communication and expression," and the rights of people with disabilities to have "peaceful enjoyment of their home, free from harm and threats of harm."

On the face of it, this may seem to some people like a no-brainer. What kind of privileged goon, the bill seems to imply, would make disabled people feel unsafe? Indeed, even progressive rabble columnist John Bonnar wrote uncritically about this bill's passage, taking self-appointed representatives of the disabled at their words, even when these folks are connected with the management.

What must be kept in mind is that any legislation that impacts the right of workers to take the type of actions that they see fit, chips away at the rights of all workers, unionized and non-unionized, not to mention the rights of the disabled to receive top-quality services from well-trained, non-scab workers.

Indeed, as Kormos and Prue pointed out on the floor of the legislature, the types of actions that this bill would criminalize would not exist if the province had anti-scab legislation, which would indeed strengthen the bargaining position of the low paid and hard working home care workers, and equally important, ensure that the recipients of home care would not have to deal with scabs with whom they have no ongoing relationship and rapport.

Let it be stated clearly, the capitalist state has no legitimacy to make demands upon how the working class struggles, period. Backing this kind of legislation, for progressives, out of some kindheartedness, is akin to backing hate speech legislation, only to have it boomerang against Queers Against Israel Apartheid. Liberals in the U.S., as well, were happy to see Bill Clinton use maximal force against some cult members in Waco, Texas, but were shocked, just shocked, at the passage of the Patriot Act. We must be very careful, indeed, in granting the state any kind of legitimacy in regards to such matters.

Make no mistake, if allegations raised in Bonnar's blog-post are true, in regards to individual instances of workers harassing residents of group homes, this is a subject of concern. Those of us in and around the left and the labour movement must not respond to this bill by simply dismissing it. As disability activist and former chief steward of CUPE Local 3903 Chelsea Flook said to me "rank and file workers should work with impacted communities and to challenge management's ability to speak on behalf of disabled people when it's the frontline workers who have relationships with the service recipients." Flook also wonders who actually wrote the bill, "if it's not coming from people with disabilities, contravenes the spirit and intention of the AODA (Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act) -- nothing about us without us". It seems doubtful that those with intellectual disabilities put together this bill, or even were consulted.

Indeed, this is the context in which this bill must be seen -- as a division between well-meaning liberals who lack a class analysis and their anti-union conservative friends on one hand, and frontline workers, who are often replaced with scabs on the other hand. What is a bigger threat, indeed to the well being of those with disabilities -- a couple of isolated picketline actions that can be dealt with under existing laws? Or having those with disabilities cared for by underpaid and less-skilled scab workers, part of the growing reserve army of labour who are willing to take on such jobs in a time of capitalist crisis and a new round of austerity measures.

It has become increasingly apparent that the greatest barrier to building a united community fight back against the new post-G20 austerity measures is the lack of concrete and institutionalized connections between public sector workers and public service recipients. Bonnar describes a press conference in which a spokesperson for community-living claims that a disabled person doesn't feel safe showing up to give his point of view. Bonnar doesn't problematize the manipulation of disabled people, and, as Flook notes, the issue of who has the right to represent and advocate for them. Time and time again, public sector management -- often moneyed liberal do-gooders, invoke the issue of workers holding the public "hostage."

This was the phrase used by a Conservative Party astro-turf operation against my own union, CUPE local 3903, when we struck against York University in the winter of 2008/2009. In turn, starting with the legislation that sent TTC workers, as well as my own union back to work, the raising of public discontent and suggestion of privatization during the city workers strike in Toronto, not to mention smaller occurrences, like in the case with the driving instructors, we are currently seeing a full-scale attack on public services, in reality, class war from above, in which the ruling class plays divide and conquer between public sector workers and the public itself.

The new austerity agenda hits all marginalized and working-class people, including those who are not able bodied enough to be a part of the workforce. We need to conceive of the current conjuncture as an attack against all but the richest elements of society, a situation in which people are thrown in jail for months on end on trumped up charges, a situation in which labour bureaucracies are sometimes tricked into taking concessions, a situation in which the non-unionized working classes are told by their media and their bought-off community and religious leaders that well-paid public sector workers are the enemy.

Let's get a few things straight -- most home care workers work just above the poverty line, and by all accounts are some of the hardest working and dedicated people one could possibly know. These aren't fat-cats on Rob Ford's gravy train. These are people who want to help other human beings, but also want to ensure that in doing so, they have some job security, a living wage and safe work conditions.

There are ways in which the issues brought out in Bill 83 can be addressed without impacting the legal rights of labour. This can include negotiating a picket-line protocol that would see union locals, for example, engaging in more creative forms of struggle beyond old-fashioned walking-in-a-circle. That said, if scabs are working in group-homes, it is the elementary responsibility of workers to oppose this, but this can be done in more creative and effective ways. As Flook says, "if a union organized with the people for whom their job is to serve, and asked what they need in order to support different job actions by their support staff, it could be negotiated... that way, the mainstream media has a much harder time trumping up the community as victims since they were active participants in the job action strategy."

Jordy Cummings is a PhD student at York University, a member of CUPE Local 3903 and the Greater Toronto Workers' Assembly.

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