Congress 2015: Challenges, opportunities for public sector unions facing austerity

Austerity and precarity figured largely on the agenda at the Canadian Association of Work and Labour Studies conference this week at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Ottawa. Conversations about how to define precarious work and its impacts on workers’ lives ran through the sessions. Meanwhile, reflections on how to organize workers in a climate of austerity animated much of the discussion.

At the opening plenary, Stephanie Ross from York University pointed out that precarity and austerity present both challenges and opportunities for the labour movement. While the material conditions of austerity reduce the time and energy people have available to engage in struggle, the extension of precarious work from the margins to the middle class and their children creates a political opening. Even as politics becomes more individualized and divisive, the relentless injustice of austerity is also increasingly clear to people whose lives remain worse seven years after the financial crisis.

To take advantage of these openings, the labour movement must employ effective strategies. A panel discussion was convened at CAWLS that offered some food for thought for those interested in building effective public sector unions in these challenging times.

Mark Thomas of York University opened the conversation with a discussion of how austerity has been used to fundamentally reorganize work in the City of Toronto’s public sector. Rob Ford’s populist-infused austerity politics pitted public sector workers against the public to justify the privatization of garbage collection, subcontracting of cleaners, and library budget cuts. The fragmentation of political interests that undergirds these policies must be overcome. Thomas suggests one legacy of the Ford era for the labour movement should be a recognition that attacks on public sector workers cannot be resisted without building broad-based coalitions.

In this context, the discourse of professionalism can both mobilize and limit public sector union activism. Jonathan Carson from the Association of Management, Administrative, and Professional Crown Employees of Ontario (AMAPCEO) observed that a professional orientation can mobilize workers on issues that immediately impact the character of the workplace, but often lead to broader political issues being perceived as “unprofessional” or unconnected to the union. Prompted by the government’s tough approach to bargaining in recent years – which breached a previous sense of trust between workers and the government – AMAPCEO has taken more aggressive positions in bargaining, mobilized unprecedented numbers of members to attend rallies, and taken steps towards joining the labour movement such as affiliating with the Canadian Labour Congress. Carson argued that a shift from professional to union discourse has built power in their organization and strengthened their position at the bargaining table.

In response to an increasingly coercive bargaining regime in Quebec, teachers have also been trying new ways to mobilize their members. Jean-Noël Grenier from Université Laval explained that austerity can lead to a cynicism about the ability to make gains in bargaining. In response, he is working with the teachers’ unions to bring politics back into bargaining, in particular by taking creative actions at the local level. Teachers organized with parents and students to create human chains around schools to protest cuts. Other teachers hosted a weekend of marking in a local mall – attended by over 900 people – to challenge the idea that teachers have too much time off. The ultimate success of these imaginative actions remains to be seen, but what is certain according to Grenier is that they are engaging young teachers, as well as reenergizing and building confidence in the teachers’ federations.

For public sector unions, serving members through collective bargaining without neglecting the task of building broad-based movements to challenge austerity is a key balancing act of our time. If the common experience of Toronto city workers, Ontario public servants and Quebec teachers underlines one thing, it is the importance of working beyond sectionalist interests to build the necessary political support for public services. And, that doing so can require taking risks and trying new approaches.