Terence Corcoran seems determined to talk about Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) members and ordinary citizens as if they are two different groups of people. As one in 60 people in Canada belong to CUPE, the distinction he is trying to make between our members and ordinary Canadians is absurd.
In his recent front-page National Post article (“Guess who’s running your city; CUPE’s power handcuffs mayors,” July 28), Mr. Corcoran attempts to paint a picture of relentlessly striking workers, and cities in constant labour turmoil. Yet last year, 955 contracts were successfully negotiated, and only six CUPE locals went on strike. Our members are not at all eager to strike, because they know the consequences of these work stoppages: They live, work and shop in the communities that are affected by them.
Mr. Corcoran’s column also makes the laughable claim that city jobs are for life. In reality, city workers are regularly victims to the contracting out of their work, as well as seasonal lay-offs that may or may not be followed by seasonal re-hirings. In many municipalities, it takes up to 15 years for outside workers to attain permanent status. If workers do hang on to their jobs, they have to fight for wage increases that track cost-of-living increases.
When speaking of the situation in Montreal West, it seems Mr. Corcoran hasn’t done his homework. Montreal West municipal workers, which he refers to as being newly added parts of the CUPE machine, have in fact been with CUPE for at least the last 15 years. And the allegation that CUPE members are refusing to do gardening work is simply false. This story was placed in the media by the municipal administration even before the flowers at issue were delivered to the municipality. Local 301 never refused to plant them.
Mr. Corcoran is right about one thing: The Canadian Union of Public Employees is leading the charge against the privatization of public services. He’s wrong, however, when he tries to give all the credit for this fight to me, CUPE’s national president. In reality, our 560,000 members across the country are themselves working every day to make sure that all Canadians have access to safe and reliable public services, and to keep these services under public ownership and management.
This fight is a difficult one, because municipalities are constantly expected to do more with less. It is true that our cities are facing budget crises. These crises, however, are not the result of CUPE’s bargaining of fair contracts for our workers. Rather, they are a result of the downloading of costs to municipalities that used to be looked after at the federal and provincial level. Mr. Corcoran uses Toronto as an example, so I will too. The amount of the current budget shortfall in Toronto equals the cost of delivering social services that the city has just been made responsible for.
Years of cutbacks and underfunding have created an infrastructure deficit in Canada estimated at $100-billion and growing by at least $2-billion a year. Urban populations are growing, and as a result the need for public services is increasing. The only thing shrinking is the pool of money that mayors and councillors are able to draw from to meet the needs of their citizens.
Stephen Harper’s Conservatives think the solution to this situation is simple. They are pushing privatization initiatives, even going so far as to say that cities won’t be eligible for funding unless they can prove that they’ve undertaken the expensive process of preparing a Public-Private Partnership (“P3”) proposal.
This political trend continues, despite the reality that P3 projects aren’t saving taxpayers any money. In fact, all over Canada, P3s have resulted in delays, cost over-runs, bankruptcies, lack of public control and, in the end, higher costs for the public and the public sector. Despite rosy financial projections and provisions for risk transfer, when these schemes fail, governments and the public are left shouldering the responsibility and the higher costs.
Canadians - CUPE members included - want, need and support public services. And CUPE is committed to doing everything it can to ensure this is what Canadians get.
Paul Moist is national president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees.
This opinion piece appeared in the National Post, July 31, 2007