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Service workers fight back

Carolyn Egan

December 28, 2013

Service workers at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, members of the Teamsters, recently struck fighting for greater wages than the company initially offered. The withdrawal of labour hurt the bottom line over the holiday season and the Teamsters won an enhanced agreement.
4,500 homecare workers walked out earlier in December impacting over 45,000 families. These workers are primarily women from racialized communities and provide needed services to the elderly and others requiring services allowing them to remain in their own homes. They are some of the most vulnerable workers in the province. The highest wage rate is $15 an hour and many of the women have worked years to achieve this. They are compensated for only one third of their travel time going from home to home, working hours more than they are paid for. This is all on behalf of a for-profit company whose CEO makes hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. The Red Cross merged last year and is now in the business of making money for shareholders at the expense of both the workers and those they care for.
These workers are typical of the low wage service industry that is booming as manufacturing jobs are being lost through layoffs and plant closures. Employers are taking advantage of their vulnerability and are trying to pit these workers against the families they serve. Rallies, including one of thousands at Queens park, have been taking place across the province. An event in support of the striking workers took place with the Ontario Health Coalition, the Toronto Health Coalition, the Good Jobs For All Coalition and the Workers Action Centre, which is spearheading the campaign for an increased minimum wage. The strong support from community organizations is very important for the strike to be successful. The company is trying to drive a wedge between the workers and those they provide services to, attempting to bring public opinion against the workers.
The fact that service workers such as these are joining the labour movement is very important and strengthens their ability to fight back against exploitation. Unions also have to develop the flexibility and develop democratic structures that speak to the needs of these workers. The walkouts that we have seen in the US of unorganized fast food and Walmart workers shows that unions are providing support and confidence to this sector even when people are not officially organized. These actions have brought the reality of the growing gap between rich and poor to the fore, and highlight the fact that corporations and governments are trying to create a low age economy in both the US and Canada.
Although workers have suffered setbacks and defeats in recent times, where given a lead many will fight. We have seen this with the library workers in Toronto, at Rio Tinto in Quebec, teachers in British Columbia, workers at Vale Inco and US Steel. All of these battles have not been won, but it is very important that we put pressure on the leadership to fight back against concessions. The more solidarity that takes place, confidence can grow when workers feel that they aren’t alone.
In Toronto, 130 Steelworkers at Crown have been on strike for months. The multi-national is trying to put in place a two-tiered situation with new hires and other concession. These workers have struck and have traveled to plants in the US, to the corporate headquarters in Philidelphia, and are connecting with fellow unionists in many other Crown workplaces trying to get support actions taking place across the chain. Workers in a newly organized facility in Turkey demonstated in support of their Canadian fellow-workers. Not one striker has crossed the line, and although there are no scabs at present, non-union Crown workers from Alberta were being flown into keep one line going.
This strike as well as the home care workers walk out demonstrates that workers will fight when they are given the opportunity to do so. The outcome is not clear and the challenges are great but if you don’t fight you can’t win.
Unions are one of the major obstacles to the austerity agenda. Harper, Hudak and others are very clear that unions can still be an effective tool to support the needs of working people. If they didn’t think this Harper wouldn’t have enacted federal legislation against postal workers, rail workers and Air Canada workers. Hudak wouldn’t be prioritizing anti-union legislation as one of the major planks in his election platform in Ontario.
Trade union activists in Ontario must take advantage of the openings that have been created in our unions to fight back against the anti-worker, anti-union attacks. Almost every union has begun an internal campaign to connect with their membership. We should be at the heart of these campaigns, connecting with the members, listening to their concerns and talking about the need for rank and file organization at the workplace. It gives us an opportunity to rebuild our unions from the bottom up. We can not only fight back against these attacks but hopefully create a new and reinvigorated labour movement with the members at the heart of it.

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