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Public Sector workers’ pandemic strike back

Pam Johnson

December 21, 2021
While the #Striketober wave of strikes was building in the US working class, a similar wave in labour militancy is happening in Canada and Quebec in the last months of 2021, this time with public sector workers leading the way. This follows a mini-strike wave mainly in the manufacturing sector that started early 2021 reported in this publication.
Workers are voting for strike mandates by huge majorities, cutting against attempt by the employers and governments to divide them. Public sector workers who have been on the frontlines since the beginning of the pandemic have been praised for their sacrifice but, then refused wage increases, proper PPE and paid sicks days. They have worked past exhaustion to maintain services as governments refuse to provide the resources to deal with the crisis. This is on top of the pre-existing conditions of years of governments starving the public sector: understaffing, cutting programs, casualization and contracting out that have exacerbated the current situation.
New Brunswick public sector workers strike
Thousands of New Brunswick public sector workers, members of Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) went on strike October 29 for 16 days, following a huge 94% strike mandate vote.
The 28,000 workers are from multiple sectors: health care, education, municipalities, universities, social services, transportation and nursing homes. All 11 locals across the province struck together. 
The attempt by conservative premier Blaine Higgs to shame workers back to work at a strike rally was met with jeers. His government then proceeded lock out non-CUPE education workers and ordered some healthcare workers back to work. These divisive maneuvers failed to stop the strike. After 16 days a deal was struck at the negotiation table and all but one local ratified an agreement with no concessions and some improvement. 
Two weeks after 9,000 nurses in the New Brunswick Nurses Union voted 92% for strike action. Their leader described the mood as ‘very jubilant’ when the results came in. The high strike vote and recent strike forced the government back to the table after refusing to negotiate since September.
Quebec Daycare workers strike
11,000 Quebec daycare workers started an unlimited strike on December 1, shutting down about 400 public daycares across the province of Quebec. Strikers are part of Quebec’s largest daycare-workers union – the Confederation of National Trade Unions, or Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN). The union says that without significant raises and improvement in working conditions, more people in the sector will quit. 
But negotiations stalled over the issue of a smaller increase for support staff. Quebec Premier François Legault's government is refusing to offer the same 20% increase to support staff, who work in maintenance, administration and the kitchens, as they are offering to the daycare educators. 
One striker said that while her pay was settled everyone who works in the daycare should be getting the same increase. A union leader calling it ‘a historic fight’ said that the strikers will not move on until their colleagues, who work in other jobs, receiving a fairer increase.
Parents showed their solidarity with the strikers workers by organizing to picket the office of the minister in charge of the daycare sector. 
The two other unions that represent the rest of the daycare workers also threatened to join the strike. This pressure forced the Legault government back to the table and they agreed to give support staff a better increase to bring the strike to an end.
Legault attempt to divide workers failed. A union leader summed it up by saying ‘it wouldn't have been possible without the daycare workers mobilizing, and their solidarity, and the exceptional support from parents.
University of Manitoba faculty strike
University of Manitoba faculty went on strike November 2 in the face of a government-imposed wage freeze. The union called on the province to abandon its wage cap mandate, because it has impeded the bargaining process. 
"We just feel like the government is in their back pocket or in that room with them, and that's not appropriate. The university is to be independent from the government," University of Manitoba Faculty Association president Orvie Dingwall said Tuesday. 
Students showed their support for the faculty strike by blockading all entrances to the administration building. "There's a fear students have that the administration just isn't listening," one student supporter said. "We're going to keep showing up whether or not they're listening and we're going to try our best to make it so that they have to listen."
Omicron and pandemic austerity 
Throughout the pandemic, provincial governments continued to push austerity agendas, even in the face of the pandemic. 
In 2020, early in the pandemic, Alberta premier Jason Kenney announced he would cut 11,000 non front-line healthcare jobs and $600 million from the healthcare budget. In August 2021, Kenney threatened to cut nurses pay by 3%, until nurses pushed back. 
Ontario premier Ford cut $500 million from education in November and has capped public sector salary increases at 1%, an effective wage cut. Ford killed legislation paid sick days. 
The lightening speed of the spread of the omicron variant will only make current conditions worse. The inadequate responses by all provincial governments will have deadly consequences. This awful reality exposes where the interests of governments all political stripes lie—with their corporate friends. The ‘economy’ that they are protecting is the profits of a few, not the welfare of the many. 
Fight back from below
The other awful reality is the abdication of leadership by trade union leaders.  A new low point was the appearance of Unifor leader, Jerry Dias, and OPSEU leader Smokey Thomas at a press conference side-by-side with Ontario premier Doug Ford in November. In a supreme show of gaslit pre-election campaigning, Ford announced that he would raise the minimum wage to $15, after scrapping it three years ago when it took office.
The public sector workers who went on strike in November and December are showing the way. Their example of solidarity and the solidarity of community supporters made some real gains and show that it is possible to push back even in this time of crisis. 
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