Presented by Barbara Byers on Friday, 11 May 2012
(Check against delivery)
Good evening Sisters! Bonjour Consoeurs!
And thank you for the privilege of being with you tonight. Merci pour cette opportunité d’être ici avec vous ce soir.
I am envious of the experience you are going to have these two days; learning from each other, sharing your stories, planning to change your workplaces, your communities, your province, your country and your world.
And please remember, no matter if you have two years or ten years experience in your union you all have something to say to others and to learn from others. Our wonderful Sister, the late Nancy Riche, used to recite part of a poem which went something like this:
“On one hand I am learning
And on one hand I am teaching
And in this way I am in perfect balance.”
I need to know who is in this room we are sharing tonight:
- Who has been a member for 5 years or less?
- Who has been a member for 5 – 10 years?
- Who has been a member for more than 10 years?
- Who is looking forward to retirement in the next 10 years?
OK, now how about your activism history:
- Who has been active in ETFO for 5 years or less?
- Who has been active 5 – 10 years?
- Who has been active more than 10 years?
- Who is at their first ETFO event – outside of their own local or workplace?
How about some information about your experience with union ‘stuff’ when you were growing up:
- Who grew up in a union activist household where talk of the union, negotiations, and things like picket line support was a regular discussion?
- Who grew up in a family where your parents were union members but not involved in their unions?
- Who grew up in a household where there were no union members and no talk of union activism?
OK, so now that I know a little bit about this powerful gathering of Sisters I suppose I should tell you something about myself.
I am that last group, the non-union household. My father was a Parts Manager for a Ford Dealership in Saskatoon for 40 years. He was not a union member or a union supporter. The only thing I can recall that would be union connected is I remember he went to Ontario one time to drive back cars when the railway “wasn’t working”.
My mother was a legal stenographer. I call her my Militant Brown Owl. When she was dying we found some writings on standing up to racism that she had done for her Brownie Packs, probably in the 1950’s and long before organizations were really taking on the issue of racism head on. She worked in a Liberal and CCF legal firm; she predicted a young articling student by the name of Roy Romanow would be Premier one day; and he was!
I am a social worker by trade. I have been a union member for 40 years last August. I have been an activist since 1979.
I was a union member for 8 years before I became active and it was completely by accident. A woman I worked with who was a Teacher Therapist approached me because my occupational group had vacancies on my occupation specific bargaining committee and thought I could be a good new addition.
I can still hear myself say to her “I don’t think so Shirley. I don’t know anything about unions; and I’m not sure I even like them”.
My experience with unions was 5 years earlier when there was a picket line of air traffic controllers at the Regina airport that prevented me from flying to my niece’s christening. And I was not happy!
And then Shirley said something that I have used with many other people who are unsure about activism: “Just try it. If you don’t like it, it’s not like a job. You can just stop your involvement”.
Beware the “Just try it” people; or better still embrace them!
I got bit by the bug of unionism and activism and feminism and political action.
I stayed involved because I wanted to work with others to change our workplaces and our world. And 33 years later I am still involved because I still want to work with others to change our workplaces and change our world.
Some of the changes we fought for in my early years were achieved.
And many of them are still yet to be achieved.
But we haven’t given up.
And we haven’t backed down.
But we have become a bit muted or cautious.
I believe it is time Sisters to raise our voices and show our faces and be union proud and put equality back on the table – not just as a social good but also as an economic good.
What could be wrong with a fair distribution of wealth?
What could be wrong with workers having a manageable workload?
This presentation is called “Public Sector Bargaining – Then and Now”. I have been asked to provide some reflections on the attacks by governments and employers as I have seen them over the years and currently.
With that backdrop I somehow think I am mostly the “Then” and you are the “Now”!
Let us be clear with each other. The destructive attacks by governments and employers at our bargaining tables and in legislation are coordinated. They were then and they are now. Maybe not in the traditional ways we view ‘coordination’; but coordinated much more deeply and dangerously.
In our present context – now – we consider it a ‘victory’ if we manage to keep what we have in our contracts or we don’t lose too much of what we have.
Governments and employers are coordinating their attacks on our pensions, on promoting two tier wage structures which divide new employees from long term employees and younger workers from older workers; and ultimately dividing members from members and members from their unions.
When I first became active in my union in 1979 we developed a pamphlet for our members explaining that the four Premiers in the west were coordinating the limits of public sector raises.
Some people thought we were conspiracy theorists.
We were not.
The Premiers did collaborate about the limits they would set around collective bargaining and wages. And they were very effective because, mostly, we ended up with wage settlements within those limits.
And as individual unions we did not do a particularly good job of coordinating and collaborating with others in the public sector in our province. We pointed out that the Premiers were meeting and talking, but we didn’t meet, and meet their solidarity with our solidarity; within the province and across the four western provinces.
When I look at the attacks now against the public sector in this province and across this country I think “They’re still at it!”.
If you are a teacher in Ontario or a teacher in BC the details of the attacks may be different but the destructive approach and the destruction to the public education system is the same.
If you are a public sector worker anywhere in this country the attack on good jobs and wages that actually support a family is the same.
If you are an auto worker in Oshawa or a member of the Public Service Alliance of Canada in New Brunswick the attack on defined benefit pensions and your retirement security is the same.
And don’t try to convince me that the Premiers or Ministers of Education or Ministers of Labour are not talking and collaborating. At a minimum they are watching what other governments do and then replicating and intensifying the attacks.
So our goal has to be much more than ‘singing solidarity’.
We have to be acting it and living it.
We need to be talking to others in our industries or professions and our communities, inside and outside of the labour movement. We need to win the hearts and minds of the public which includes our own members.
We need to provide support to each other.
We need to look at the details and then swiftly look at the ‘the big picture’; where are the wedges being driven in, what does our polling tell us, who are we building alliances with, who are the allies of our opponents and what are their weak spots, what is their agenda and how do we interfere with it?
We have to fight smart and fight to win.
This struggle is about power. This is about what kind of economy we will have, and what kind of equality will be part of that economy. This is about limiting the voice of unions to defend what we have fought for and to improve what we have.
And unfortunately this struggle is not about logical arguments; at least with the Harper government. They do not care about logic. They are ideological and logical arguments are not going to win this struggle.
If you detect a sense of urgency in my voice be assured that your perception is correct. Governments and employers are moving swiftly to dismantle as much as they can in workplace rights, human rights, advocacy rights and so much more for the 99% of our population that really creates the wealth in the country.
Consider the parliamentary power used just in the past year since Stephen Harper won his majority government.
The postal workers were ordered back to work with an imposed wage settlement that was less than what the employer had on the bargaining table. They were ordered back after they were locked out by their employer – a crown corporation! Was it necessary? No. They were locked out by a government agency. If the Harper government was truly concerned about the economic impact of the interruption of mail service they should have been sitting down with the management of Canada Post and getting them to lift the lock-out and get back to the bargaining table.
Governments are making choices; choices that benefit their friends and not workers like us. Governments are choosing to give tax cuts to their business allies and corporations; and then choosing to cut services to citizens – like education and health and roads and immigrant services and so many things that benefit our communities and our families.
Governments are choosing to starve publicly funded and delivered health care and promoting privatization of health services that will mean more and more of us will not receive the services we need – at least not without paying a hefty fee. Do we want to find ourselves like our counterparts in the US where most strikes and lockouts are about health care issues; and unions spend much of their time, energy and finances bargaining for health care coverage for their members?
In times when people are naturally nervous about the economy, here in Canada and around the world, governments are using the cover of ‘the economy’ to implement huge attacks on workers rights and citizens rights.
In Air Canada the federal government interfered in four different sets of bargaining; preventing strikes, imposing conditions and preventing the negotiating process from evolving as it needs to; toward a settlement agreed to by both sides.
Was the economy going to crumble if there were strikes at Air Canada?
Is our economy so fragile that it will collapse if people don’t get to fly during spring break?
I hope not!
There is no logical economic argument that anyone can provide for this kind of interference in the process of collective bargaining.
There is however an ideology that clearly is intended to break the effectiveness of unions as a voice for all workers.
They know that our members will not support their unions standing still or as Bob White often said “Workers don’t need unions to lead them backward”.
Unions and the labour movement are often the first and last lines of defence; for our own members and for workers who do not have the privilege of a union.
Take a look at Harper’s Bill C-377 which is couched in ‘union accountability and transparency’ but is really legislation that is intended to prevent us from providing the best service possible for our members and prevent us from being active citizens in our communities by working with our allies to create a better world for all.
The intent of Bill C-377 is part of the big picture that wants to tie unions up with reams of administration and make us less effective at representing our members. It wants to prevent us from being good community citizens who support others with similar goals to our movement. It is not about transparency or accountability.
And the Premiers are rubbing their hands together with glee, as they have similar plans evidenced by the ‘consultation paper’ that Brad Wall has distributed in Saskatchewan with ideas such as people under 18 not being required to join the union.
I used to have a poster that says “Class consciousness is knowing which side of the fence you are on. Class analysis is figuring out who is there with you”.
I am confident we know which side of the fence we are on; who we are fighting for.
We need to be clear about who is there with us.
Many years ago when we were fighting cuts in public services in Saskatchewan we held community meetings with members, allies, curious citizens and those who wanted to challenge public services.
We didn’t structure these public meetings with the traditional union format. You know – the three to five speakers each taking 20 minutes; and then the questions from the floor which were really small speeches and maybe a question rushed at the end; and then everyone went home.
Our meetings were in a popular education format. Brief introductory remarks, small group discussions where people had a chance to say what was happening to services in their community and could exchange ideas of how things could be done better; and then a creative report back on what people would be prepared to do starting in their community.
We involved more people; we heard new approaches and ideas; people felt they could put forward questions and suggestions that might be counter to the ‘standard speech’ and we found new allies and new ways to work together. And this was long before we had the technology of today that can really enhance those discussions and the continued connections.
Did we totally prevent those cuts and privatization?
No we didn’t. But I believe we did prevent some loss of services.
What consistently came out of those meetings from the voices of the participants – some union members and some curious citizens?
They clarified in many ways that:
- Cuts to public services were not good for communities as it destroyed good jobs that those communities rely on.
- That cuts were not good for services because there are really only three things that go into any job – wages, administration and materials – and they were all cut back on in the interests of private profit which meant bad services or products of one kind or another.
- That privatization was not fiscally responsible. In order for someone to make a profit we are going to pay higher fees at some point, we are going to have fewer services, and we will pay more individually for services that would have been better and more affordable if offered through the tax system. It will end up costing the taxpayer more; directly through taxes and user fees.
So why did I share this story with you now?
Then or now we need to have the same discussions. For example, now we are facing CETA, the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with the European Union, which will have huge impacts on services that are currently delivered in our communities and in our country. I suggest you visit the CLC website to find our how CETA will affect you, your job, your family and your community. And it will affect your bargaining powers at the negotiating table. It is a complex issue however one we need to make accessible to our members and to our communities.
I believe we need to have more meaningful conversations with our members and others about the issues we are fighting for and the issues which are important to them.
Yes, we need speeches and rallies and pickets in front of MPPs' offices.
And we also need meaningful engagement with members and allies about what they see is happening; what they are concerned about; what they believe needs to be done; how they see us working together.
Even with my sense of urgency we need to take the time to do this, and to stick with it.
A more recent example of these kinds of discussions is the work the CLC and affiliates have done on the issue of retirement security.
Have we focused on our negotiated pensions? No we have not.
We joined with others – some with pensions, some without pensions; some with RRSP accounts, some with none; most with little or no savings for retirement. We joined with the 93% of Canadians who are members of the best run defined benefit plan in the country, indeed in the world – the people who contribute to and collect from the Canada Pension Plan. Collectively we demanded that governments across this country act on improvements to CPP to create retirement security for all.
And we are not giving up – even though Jim Flaherty and Stephen Harper are saying “now is not the time to improve the CPP”.
We will continue to lobby governments but more importantly we will continue to work in our communities to have those conversations with our friends and neighbours and colleagues about why improvements to the CPP are absolutely the right thing to do for the 93% of Canadians who need to know they can look forward to a retirement with dignity, equality and justice.
It is not easy but the conversation on pensions is happening in many more places because of the work we have done and continue to do.
I do want to deal with one more issue before I close.
It is long past the time to put issues on women’s equality back on all of our bargaining tables again.
I am not just saying that because I am in a room full of wonderful, powerful Sisters.
I would say that no matter what the gender representation was – and probably even louder if it was a room full of men.
Why is it in ‘good times’ we are told that we don’t need to bargain for women’s equality because it will just ‘happen’ because it is natural justice.
And when it is ‘tough times’ we are told that now is not the time to put equality issues on the bargaining table when there are more ‘important’ things to protect.
So I want to know what could be more important than equality?
And I want to know when will be the right time to talk about and achieve equality?
I want to know why there was child care for some women who worked in the industrial plants during World War II and employers needed women to fill the jobs normally held by men who were away being killed or injured in war; yet we still don’t have child care for the 75% of children whose mothers are working outside of the home now .
I want to know why child care was an issue of good business sense then and it isn’t now.
I want to know why we don’t have $7 a day childcare for families like they have in Québec; while my friends in Ottawa are paying almost $2,000 a month for childcare for two children.
I want someone to explain to me what reason they would give if told that the participation rate of women in the workplace in Québec had gone from the worst in the country to the best in the country coincidentally over the first ten years of having their childcare program.
And I want to know why childcare has been dropped from our demands at the bargaining table? Maybe if employers, including public sector employers, were having to pay the price for the childcare that their workers scramble to find and then pay for they might have a different attitude toward a universally accessible, affordable, publicly delivered National Childcare Program.
Maybe if our members were having those discussions around bargaining issues we would hear from our members who are struggling to work and to be confident in the childcare their children receive.
Maybe we would hear from the grandparents who love their grandchildren very much but don’t believe they have the time or the energy or the training to be early childhood educators; those grandparents who want their grandchildren to have the best education they can from the earliest ages.
And I also want to know what we are doing about negotiating more work-life balance for our members.
Have we have forgotten or abandoned the demand for shorter work days and more flexibility to meet work-life balance.
In fact we are working longer hours and more days; and a lot of it is unpaid work. And employers continue to demand more.
My early days in my union we negotiated a decrease in hours with no reduction in pay from 40 hours per week to 36 hours for office employees or 37 1/3 for field employees. That was 32 years ago!
During the government of Grant Devine they mused about getting rid of the 5/4 work weeks. A somewhat ‘sleepy’ membership woke up and clearly told their Members of the Legislative Assembly that it would be a strike issue. And miraculously the issue disappeared.
But we haven’t advanced anything on a shorter work week since then.
It is not only about shorter hours. It is about helping families deal with the pressure cooker of working full time – or balancing multiple part time jobs to create a full time wage – and caring for children or dependant family members or ageing relatives.
How many unions have gone to the bargaining table with real solutions to the crunch their members are living with?
And we know that women feel that crunch harder than men do. We still are the primary caregivers for children and our parents.
I once heard that the average woman spends 17 years looking after children and another 17 years looking after ageing parents. Even presuming there is some overlap in these years – the sandwich years – that woman doesn’t have much time for ‘roses’ in her life before she becomes the ageing parent that her daughters are looking after.
"Then" we were at the bargaining tables demanding movement on hours of work, compressed work weeks, family leaves, etc.
"Now" we seem to think that “now is not the time”.
Sisters, working harder isn’t working; and it isn’t fiscally responsible.
If we want to be relevant to our members we need to speak to their lives and their needs; and yes, to their exhaustion after a long day in the classroom, or at the office, or on the assembly line or in the hospital ward.
To be relevant to our members we need to show real determination to do something about work organization.
Years ago - “then” - when unions started offering courses on stress management we would have members asking to attend that never attended any other union events.
And it wasn’t good enough to just tell people to ‘relax and dream you are on the beaches of Hawaii’. They didn’t want to just learn how to cope. They wanted the stress of working to be removed.
“Now” if we offer a conference on work-life balance the members of today who are also not union activists are lining up to attend.
And again, it is not good enough to talk about what ‘might be done’. They want to know what we are going to do about it.
Sisters, as I throw these challenges to you I know you are also trying to balance your work and your lives and your union lives.
There is so much I want to share with you; because the ‘then’ and the ‘now’ are so much about ‘us’ and our historical struggles and our present day struggles. But you would be here for a very long time and that wouldn’t really get us all active and out there listening to each other and listening to other people.
Your active engagement is absolutely critical to moving equality issues back to the forefront of our bargaining tables. And challenging other Sisters to do the same in their unions.
We need women’s voices at all bargaining tables.
We need to say loudly and clearly that now is the time for advances in equality for women workers.
We need employers and governments to know that when women achieve greater equality everyone benefits; men, families, employers, communities and governments and yes the ‘almighty economy’.
As women trade unionists, activists, feminists and so much more we stand beside Sisters who brought us this far. We owe it to them, and to all women coming after us, to not go backward, to not stand still, to fight to move ahead and to never give up our call and our collective action for justice.
The trade union song “Bread and Roses” reminds us that the women before us fought for economic and social justice.
We are still fighting for economic justice and still fighting for social justice – for women, for men, for children, for families, for communities, for our country and for our world.
You have made a difference. You will make a difference – now and in the future.
The struggle continues. La lutte continue.
Thank you. Merci beaucoup.