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Fighting precarity in Ontario public sector unions

Pam Johnson

September 21, 2016

The rise in precarious work in Ontario in the past decade has been dramatic. Particularly shocking is the statistic that 50% of all workers in the relatively wealthy Toronto and Hamilton areas are precariously employed. Even more surprising is the fact that this extends even to the most densely unionized sector, public service. The rate of unionization in the public sector is 70% compared to 17% for the private sector. But, a growing number of these unionized workers are precarious, part-time and often low-waged workers who do not get the full benefits and protection of the union like their full-time counterparts.

Unionized public sector workers are also experiencing the brunt of the onslaught of austerity by governments at all levels and of all political stripes. Wynne’s Liberal government has continued to escalate this trend and pushing to privatize hydro and parts of the public service.

At the bargaining table, Wynne’s Liberals have continued and encouraged the divide and conquer tactic of always pitting the more protected full-timers against the precarious workers in public sector workplaces. If one group gains something, then the other group has to lose something. In this scenario everyone has been losing ground but, precarious workers have been losing faster.

Backdoor union busting

The result is a widening gulf between full-time workers and precarious workers in the same ostensibly ‘unionized’ workplace. Employers have also been exploiting contract language that allows them to hire non-permanent part-time employees instead of creating full-time permanent jobs. Many of these positions were intended to be temporary or transitional but, have become, in practice, permanent precarious positions.

In Ontario colleges for example, 70% of faculty are now contract faculty with no job security, minimal to zero benefits, and lower wages than their full-time counterparts. In the colleges, as in other public sector workplaces, the complement of workers who receive the full benefit of union protection is decreasing through attrition as employers are replacing full-time with precarious workers.   

This back door union busting has had several impacts. It has reduced the numbers of fully protected workers, and, because the precarious workers aren’t union-protected, it has created a new silenced majority of workers who cannot participate publicly in union activity for fear of losing what little they have.

The full-time/precarious divide in the workplace is often a place of friction. Full-timers see precarious workers as less invested and precarious workers see full-timers as privileged. Building solidarity is difficult in this circumstance. As well, union locals are often made up of only protected full-timers who don’t always know what the working conditions of precarious workers actually are.

Lessons from the Mississauga Library strike victory

The recent Mississauga Library workers strike victory is an example of what can be achieved when the gap between the precarious part-timers and the full-timers is bridged. They pushed back all concessions and every worker gained, including a $15 minimum wage for part-timers. Some lessons:

· Communication and engagement: The main element was nearly two years of member engagement and solidarity building between the full-time and precarious workers in the lead-up to the strike. This included responding to EVERY request for information or assistance by members.

· A strategy to put pressure on the employer: The strategy was to use the labour-management committee to show that is was possible to push back against management demands and policies. This also required that the local leadership put in some extra time to prepare and strategize before each meeting.

· Rejecting the pie: the bargaining team refused to accept that gains made by one group could only be made if another group sacrificed-- everybody had to go forward together.

· Political strategy: The local took advantage of the current political climate in which the issue of precarious, low paying jobs is being raised more regularly in the mainstream. They were able to promote political discussion about workers rights and how real gains could be made through campaigns like the $15 and Fairness campaign.

This rank-and-file model put the focus on the members, but also has a strategy to deal with the employer and raise bigger political issues. Every socialist and trade union activist should take a close look at this victory.

Join the October 1 rally for decent work, 1pm at Queen's Park

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