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How workers can win

Carolyn Egan

November 30, 2012

We have recently witnessed mass strikes across Europe protesting the austerity agenda having a devastating effect on workers and the poor. People rose up in country after country letting their rulers know that it will not be so easy to make them pay for the excesses of the wealthy and the corporations.
I have heard so many in Canada lamenting the fact that we have not had that same type of worker fight-back. We have seen defeats at Caterpillar in London, Ontario. CUPE 416 and 79, representing municipal workers in Toronto, accepted concession contracts. OECTA, the Catholic teachers in Ontario, did the same. The Canadian Auto Workers did not put up a fight against the big three automakers in recent negotiations.
We know that with the Occupy movement and the magnificent student strike in Quebec that sections of society are taking up the gauntlet, fighting back and winning gains. Quebec student organizers worked hard mobilizing their members through mass assemblies, face-to-face contact in departments and broad mobilizations. The Charest government fell and the tuition fee increases were rolled back.
If we examine some of the recent workplace struggles where workers have made gains in North America there is a similar method of organizing.
The library workers in Toronto did not win a total victory but pushed back the worst of the concessions. They had been actively involved with those who use their services for a significant time before their strike. Major literary figures such as Margaret Atwood came on board. Workplace organizing was taking place at every work site. The membership was actively involved at every level and after a two-and-a-half-week strike they got a decent collective agreement.
In Alma, Quebec, Rio Tinto locked out almost eight hundred workers. These Steelworkers demanded that there union take up the fight. The entire community in rural Quebec was organized to fight the company. Members joined with the Quebec students, did a march to Quebec City, celebrated International Women’s Day. Solidarity buses drove all the way from Toronto and Hamilton. An international campaign was developed “off the podium” to protest the use of Rio Tinto materials in the Olympic medals. The rank-and-file ran the lockout, and they won—not everything, but they pushed back massive concessions.
In the recent Chicago teachers strike the same method proved to be successful. A group of rank-and-file activists began organizing in their workplaces and with the community in 2008 against school closures and won the leadership of the local in 2010. When the membership struck against the imposition of merit pay, other concessions and privatization, the rank-and-file was out in force because they had been building for years. Contract Action Committees were set up in each school a year before the contract expired. The students and community strongly supported their teachers because of their work together to stop school closures and this collective strength beat back the attempts by the city to discredit the teachers and force so-called “reforms” down their throats. It was a model of rank-and-file organizing.
If you look for the common element in these wins it is the mobilization and leadership of the rank-and-file. In these hard times this can make the difference between victory and defeat. Workers cannot depend on their leaders but must use the collective strength that is their own. The more experience they gain in struggle the more their confidence will grow to fight back and win.
The Ontario Federation of Labour has called a mass demonstration against the austerity agenda and attacks on unions by the McGuinty government for January 26. Demand that our leaders organize to get members out in their thousands. Where we can, committees should be set up in our workplaces organizing our fellow workers to come out and join in the struggle. This is our opportunity to show that workers in Ontario are not prepared to accept these attacks.

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