Weve been very active with different aspects of the Public Works! Campaign in the last few weeks with many more activities planned for the coming months.
The Canadian Council for Public Private Partnerships held its annual conference in Toronto in November and CUPE let them know in no uncertain terms that we wont stand by and let them privatize jobs and public services in Canada. Letters were sent to dozens of politicians and officials attending the conference urging them not to participate in the corporate sectors agenda of privatization. The letters were followed up with press releases across the country advising the media that public officials were participating in this privatization planning session without a mandate to do so.
A huge CUPE-led demonstration of Ontario Federation of Labour delegates in front of the Hilton Hotel where the conference was taking place garnered a great deal of media interest including an editorial in the National Post critical of CUPE because, as they say, we are only trying to save jobs!
On November 25, CUPE presented its brief to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance stressing the urgent need for federal reinvestment in public services in the coming budget. The brief outlined the impact of cuts over the last few years on health care, education and housing, calling for reinvestment in order to protect our quality of life into the next century. Our presentation focussed on two key areas: the urgent necessity for a national child care program after years of broken promises by the Liberal government and the pressing need to rebuild municipal water systems with a national infrastructure program.
We are preparing for the January release of CUPEs 2nd Annual Report on Privatization. For 2000, the report will expose the corporate interests behind privatization, the shift from public investment to private financing and the hardship imposed on Canadian families as a result of the subsequent high user fees. We will also examine the impact of for-profit home care, water services and schools. But in keeping with our action plan passed at convention, we will also highlight what were for not just what were against by showcasing public sector success stories that demonstrate that Public Works!
CUPE members across the country continue to score victories in keeping public services public. The Chignecto-Central School Board in Nova Scotia rejected two private-sector proposals and announced it would continue to provide its own school bus services after a two-month campaign by members of Local 3890. The members wore “stop contracting out” buttons to work, took out ads in local newspapers and convinced the public to phone their school board trustees. And it worked!
In New Brunswick, Local 1190 and the Division continues its battle to return the toll highway to public hands. The local recently won a grievance on behalf of six members when an adjudicator ruled that the privatization of construction and maintenance on the highway violates the terms of the collective agreement. Now the province has to reimburse the members for lost wages. The new Tory government was elected on a promise to rescind the highway privatization. On October 26, members of the local met with the Minister of Transportation and presented him with a brief that proves that privatizing highway maintenance is more costly than keeping it in public hands.
Across the country, locals have been lobbying their MPs and municipal councils in order to build support for infrastructure investment. On December 7, the entire National Executive Board of CUPE will be on Parliament Hill to lobby MPs from all political parties and every province. CUPE is calling for a commitment of $2 billion per year for investment in municipal water and wastewater systems in order to stop the threat of cash-strapped municipalities turning to the private sector in order to rebuild aging water infrastructure. We are also doing major public outreach in this campaign. A booklet about water privatization has already been sent out to nearly one million households in targeted ridings across the country. Billboards went up in 17 cities at the end of November and early December. The message is simple. We have seen what happens to gas prices as a result of price gouging by the oil cartel. We dont want the same thing to happen to our supply of water.
The response to our householders has been extremely positive. Callers to the CUPE Water Watch phone line (1-877-CUPE-H2O) are asking where they can get more information and how they can get involved. Whenever a contact number is left, we call them back and also connect them to local Water Watch Committees where possible. Water Watch Committees are now active in 17 communities pressing municipal governments to keep water public.
Another water issue CUPE has been keeping a close eye on is water export. Working through the national Water Watch Coalition, weve been pressing the federal government to ban the export from Canada of bulk water because only an outright ban can prevent foreign water companies from getting access to our water supply under the terms set out in NAFTA.
Unfortunately, the federal government has refused to take decisive action and has, instead, proposed a federal-provincial accord which treats water export as an environmental concern rather than as a matter of trade. The accord, which calls for provincial prohibition of the “removal of water from major water basins” would be voluntary, allowing provinces to begin exporting water at any time.
Thankfully, this accord was rejected at the recent meeting of federal and provincial environmental ministers after much pressure from water activists, including CUPE. Of course, we must still keep working hard on the issue at both the federal and provincial levels because the federal government is determined to wear down provincial opposition.
At both the Nova Scotia and Newfoundland Federation of Labour conventions this fall, Water Watch presentations took centre stage. And at the annual conference of the Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities in November, the Nova Scotia Water Watch Committee handed out over 300 copies of draft resolutions for municipal councils to enthusiastic representatives from over 45 municipalities across the province.
Ralph Kleins announcement that Alberta will integrate private hospitals into the public system has sent a chilling message to us all. Pandoras box has now been officially opened on health care and the contents are all for sale. Universal Medicare is at risk.
The Alberta government says it plans to introduce legislation in the new year so all of the details are not yet disclosed. But the proposal announced by Premier Klein indicates that for the first time private hospitals will be contracted by public health authorities to provide extended stay surgeries. There is no question that the public health system will be irreparably harmed as public dollars are drained away into the pockets of health care corporations.
Albertas plan is a violation of the Canada Health Act. Public administration and accessibility two of the key principles of that Act are clearly threatened. Canadians understand that the spirit of the Canada Health Act is as important as the letter of the Act and do not want public health care to be jeopardized by a government more interested in profits than in health care.
If private hospitals are accredited, American corporations will be champing at the bit to enter the Canadian market under the protection of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). American corporations will surely interpret Albertas actions as acquiescing to open up the hospital sector to private competition. Nothing could be worse for the fate of Medicare.
In the face of this national crisis, the National Executive Committee of CUPE decided at its meeting on November 19 to recommend that CUPE launch a Canada-wide mobilization. The National Executive Board, at this meeting, will be discussing a campaign that targets the federal government, demanding immediate action to stop the threat of private hospitals and increased funding for public health care as well as pressuring provincial governments across the country to stop the erosion of our health care system. We are also getting input from CUPE health care groups across the country to ensure that our 150,000 members who are front line health care providers play a vital role in a campaign to save Medicare.
A major component of the campaign will involve mobilizing members and the public within Alberta, but action is clearly needed from coast to coast. At the same time, I have requested to meet with federal Health Minister Allan Rock in order to discuss the national implications of Albertas action. It is paramount that the federal government hold firmly to the principles of the Canada Health Act in the face of this latest salvo. Further actions will target MPs, premiers and members of provincial legislatures.
One of the most important peoples protests in North American history took place in Seattle, November 30, as labour and social activists from around the world gathered to demonstrate against the World Trade Organization (WTO).
The WTO is a powerful trade institution established in 1995 to enforce a series of trade agreements agreed to by its 135 member governments. These agreements set out rules for world trade, including what governments can or cant do with respect to domestic laws that have either a direct or indirect impact on trade, such as government subsidies, environmental laws, safety regulations, and so forth. Essentially, all the WTO trade agreements are designed to create one large marketplace to allow those who trade (i.e. the large transnational corporations) to carry out their business with as few restrictions as possible (i.e. domestic laws that serve to protect citizens, consumers, workers, the environment).
The WTO meeting in Seattle was called to set the agenda for the next round of talks aimed at liberalizing trade even more. The government representatives in Seattle werent there to agree to new trade rules since that will take many years. Rather, they were there to decide the scope of the “next generation” of trade agreements under the WTO umbrella. For instance, and most importantly for CUPE, one of the issues on the table was how to liberalize rules governing the trade of services: health, education, water, postal services, and so forth.
CUPE has been working hard for many months in coalition with many other groups to prepare for the WTO meeting in Seattle by getting word out about the WTO and what is at stake for Canadians in the next round of talks. And around the world, many other popular organizations have also been educating themselves and others about trade issues. The large popular demonstrations in the streets of Seattle show that everyones work has paid off. If there was any doubt before, there certainly wasnt any doubt after the disruption of the WTO opening ceremonies, that a very large number of people understand and feel passionately about the WTO. A very large and growing number understand that the WTO agreements are all about paving the way for corporations to reap obscenely large profits at the expense of the environment, workers rights, the developing countries, and ordinary people all over the world.
For CUPE, one of the most important concerns about the WTO is how the agreements will impact on Canadas public services. The US government and others are pushing hard to get Canada to open up our so-called education, health and other service industries to private, foreign competition. If they get their way, and the trade agreements are extended to cover Canadian services, it will be impossible for governments to stop privatization, and it will be impossible to stop foreign companies from taking over our public health and education systems.
Fortunately, the WTO talks in Seattle ended in failure. The member governments could not agree on an agenda for a new round of talks. Unfortunately, it wasnt disagreement on the question of services that derailed the talks. In fact, preliminary information from the negotiations (which of course go on in secret) suggests that services was the least controversial of all the issues under discussion and that agreement has been reached to “move trade liberalization in the area of services to higher levels”. Therefore, negotiations on services will continue, on both a bilateral and multilateral basis. And we have to make sure that the Canadian government doesnt give away our public services in the process.
CUPE has already prepared and mailed out information about the WTO to all local unions and divisions . This information is based on research commissioned by CUPE and carried out by Ellen Gould, a trade lawyer and researcher. Ellen Gould has since received significant media attention for her work. As well, we sponsored a cross-country WTO caravan of anti-WTO activists who spread the word in many communities between Toronto and Seattle.
CUPE has also hosted a special WTO web site linked to CUPEs web site with up-to-date information on the WTO and events in Seattle. This web site received almost 10,000 “hits”. Of course, now that the WTO and events in Seattle are getting the media attention they deserve, our educational material is much more likely to be read and used, which is very exciting considering the hours of work that went into preparing it.
Of course, we have only just started the massive education we have to do on the subject. Over the next few months, we will continue to do everything we can to draw the connections between trade and privatization. This includes distributing an analysis of the outcome of the Seattle talks, particularly on the question of services. And it includes working in cooperation with the CLC and other organizations to sponsor educational workshops on globalization and world trade and what it all means for Canadian workers, particularly CUPE members.
Over the next few months, CUPE will also monitor closely what happens next at the WTO, make regular reports to CUPE members, and encourage participation in various actions to ensure that the Canadian government knows we are watching. We plan to play a leadership role in strengthening the national coalition of organizations that has come together to educate and mobilize around trade issues in the past year. And we will encourage local unions to get involved in similar coalitions at the local level.
It is important for the national coalition to develop a strategy and plan to deal with the WTO now that the meetings in Seattle are over. It is unlikely that governments are really taking a “time out”, as proclaimed by US Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky. More likely, the trade negotiators are creeping silently back to WTO headquarters in Geneva to plan their next move.
The protests in Seattle have really shaken things up. The most powerful institution in the world had to cancel its opening ceremonies and had to bludgeon, tear gas, and shoot rubber bullets in order to carry on with its meeting. Even after calling out the National Guard to allow the talks to go on, the meeting ended in failure. The Battle of Seattle shows that people (particularly young people) have the courage to take action against the powerful and that when they do, they can succeed. This should give all of us hope for the many struggles were taking on.
The WTO has not taken a “time out” and we cant either. We have to make it clear to the Canadian government that trade is now on the publics mind and on CUPEs agenda. We will be watching the governments every move. We dont want any more trade deals. We want a full, public evaluation of the damage already done by the WTO. We want to replace the existing WTO agreements with fair trade policies and rules developed and enforced to serve the interests of the majority, not the interests of the handful of transnational corporations that profit from the rules as they are now written.