Chicago teachers have shown that public sector workers can take a stand against concessions and the austerity agenda and win.
In the heightened political climate of the US presidential elections, with the mayor of Chicago being the former assistant to President Barack Obama, the teachers were able to garner broad community support. Parents and students understood what was at stake in the contract negotiations between the city and the union, and threw their support to the teachers.
The key to success in any public sector battle is to make it clear to those who are using those public services that you are fighting for them. This is the way to counter the “gravy train” mantra that so many politicians are mouthing today in an attempt to undermine support for public services and those who provide them. The library workers in Toronto used the same approach with public readings and other events during their two-and-a-half-week strike and built strong solidarity in the lead up to job action. Toronto has one of the heaviest used library systems in North America, and users—including notable authors such as Margaret Atwood—were vocal in their support. This was significant in turning the tide and helped the library workers to beat back most of the concessions being sought.
Despite low union density and “right to work” laws, workers in the US are fighting back in ways that are inspirational to us all. The Wisconsin uprising against the state’s attack on collective bargaining rights put working class struggle back on the agenda in a way that had not been seen in decades in that country. This was followed by the Occupy movement, which engaged with trade unions from New York City to Oakland, California. The language of the 99% had resonance with working people and the poor around the globe, with over 1600 occupy sites being established.
In Canada, public sector workers in British Columbia recently staged a one-day general strike against attacks by the provincial government. This was an important step in the fight against the austerity agenda in Canada. The magnificent student strike in Quebec over tuition hikes in post-secondary education brought down Jean Charest’s Liberal government. It sparked solidarity actions across the country with people in the streets banging pots and pans in support. A busload of Toronto Steelworkers drove to Montreal in the summer to join one of the protests and the rank-and-file members who made the six-hour journey were greeted with a joyous response from the demonstrators.
The Liberal government in Ontario has recently enacted legislation taking away the collective bargaining rights of teachers in this province. There was a huge demonstration in the summer, called by the Elementary School Teachers Federation, which brought out thousands. The ETFO members are withdrawing extra-curricular services and students have walked out of schools, showing their support for the teachers, and pointing the finger of blame at the Ontario government. A recent by-election in a traditionally Conservative riding was recently won by the New Democratic Party, and one of the main issues voters were responding to was the attack on teachers.
The labour movement has to connect with the communities under attack and fight back as the teachers did in Chicago. Working people and the poor understand better everyday which side they are on in the battles shaping up. The 1% is becoming more and more frantic to save its wealth and privilege—the mask is being torn off. This is the time to step up the struggle.
We saw the long lockout of Steelworkers in Alma, Quebec by Rio Tinto. After over six months on the line they were able to push back the worst of the attacks and go back to work with their heads held high. That helped Rio Tinto workers in Kitimat, BC—who were sending $60,000 a month from their own wages to the Alma workers during the lockout—to win a good contract for themselves. Recently a Rio Tinto mine on the north shore of the St. Lawrence, also organized by the Steelworkers, won an excellent contract with significant gains. Rio Tinto is the third largest multinational in the world but it was defeated by strong rank-and-file action, solidarity and an international campaign. This also built strong ties between Francophone and Anglophone workers, which are critical to any long-term victory.
The working class has the power to fight back and win. The attacks are hard and we have had a lot of losses and setbacks but if we have a strong movement of the rank-and-file willing to push back we can make gains that will hopefully inspire others. Today we have no other choice. Let’s hope the teachers in Ontario can lead the way in this province.