Workers Rights and the Labour Movement in Ontario

Austerity, Disabilities and Union Rights: Opposing Bill 83

Published on Global
, by Jordy Cummings, November 23, 2010.

… Public Sector Workers, Users and Community Fight-backs: It has become increasingly apparent that the greatest barrier to building a united community fight-back against the “new fiscal austerity” measures is the lack of a strategy and institutionalized connections – and a movement building these links – between public sector workers and public service recipients. At a press conference, a spokesperson for community-living claimed that a disabled person didn’t feel safe showing up to give his point of view. But, as Flook notes, the issue is one of who has the right to represent and advocate for them, and the rights of workers to legitimately undertake collective action.

Time and time again, senior public sector management and the bourgeois media invoke the issue of workers holding the public “hostage.” This was the phrase used by a Conservative Party “astro-turf” operation against, for example, CUPE Local 3903 striking against York University in the winter of 2008/2009.[2] This has generated a number of cases of legislation that sent public sector workers, such as Toronto Transit workers, CUPE 3903, back to work. We seem to be in a further phase of what Leo Panitch and Donald Swartz called “permanent exceptionalism” in the undermining of public sector bargaining rights – a key feature of neoliberalism.[3] The raising of public discontent and suggestion of privatization during the city-workers strike in Toronto, not to mention smaller occurrences as in the case with the Ontario driving instructors, we are currently seeing a sharp attack on public-services, from governments of all political stripes at all levels. This is a particular “class-war from above” strategy, to divide public sector workers from the users of public services while pursuing further privatization, commercialization, contracting-out and cuts to the levels of provision.

The new austerity agenda hits all marginalized and working class people, including those who are not able-bodied enough to be a part of the workforce. Most home care workers work just above the poverty line, and by all accounts are some of the hardest working and dedicated people one could possibly know. These are people who have intentionally pursued “care-work.” But they also want to ensure job security, a living wage and safe work conditions.

There are ways in which the issues brought out in Bill 83 can be addressed without impacting the legal rights of labour. This can include negotiating a picket-line protocol that would see union locals, for example, engaging in more creative forms of struggle beyond the necessary but limited “walking-in-a-circle” picketing.[4] If scabs are working in group-homes, it is the elementary responsibility of workers to oppose this, but this can be done in more creative and effective ways to ensure care is still being provided. As Flook contends, “if a union organized with the people for whom their job is to serve, and asked what they need in order to support different job actions by their support staff, it could be negotiated…that way, the mainstream media has a much harder time trumping up the community as victims since they were active participants in the job action strategy.”

How can this be done? A start would be for labour organizers to make contacts and develop concrete relationships with advocacy groups, from the mainstream, such as People First, to the radical, such as Damn 2025 and MAD Pride, to discuss both the importance of workplace safety and fair pay for home-care workers. Broad social justice campaigning and specific campaigning around issues of ability and accessibility are not at all contradictory. This can be seen in any number of campaigns, such as in the Greater Toronto Workers’ Assembly’s Free and Accessible Transit Campaign, bringing together multiple activists from different traditions. A new Left in the labour movement that can address community concerns is another necessity.

There is a need for a space in which these issues of building concrete links between public service providers and recipients, to defend and expand the public sphere, can be discussed and built – a yawning gap in the Canadian labour movement today. Most importantly, the labour Left must realize that we must not cede to neoliberal advocacy-style politics on contentious issues like this. Making it clear that scabs are hazardous to the health of those with disabilities, and developing ongoing personal and organic relationships between the users and providers of public services, should be an essential strategy in the coming battles against austerity. (full text and Notes 1 – 4).

(Jordy Cummings is a PhD student at York University, a member of CUPE Local 3903 and the Greater Toronto Workers’ Assembly. An earlier version of this article appeared at

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