Increasing exploitation of temporary foreign workers is a pressing concern for the Canadian labour movement. Kicking off day three of the national bargaining conference, delegates discussed what CUPE can do to better protect these workers – who often go unseen and unheard.
The breakfast hosted by Aina Kagis, regional director for Saskatchewan, featured speakers Yessy Byl from the Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre, and Joey Calugay from the Immigrant Workers Centre shared their experiences and expertise.
“We need to start with the idea of workers solidarity, said Calugay, on how unions can reach out to temporary foreign workers. “That means removing discriminatory policies and allowing people who come here for work a pathway to citizenship.”
Pushing back against austerity
Workers didn’t cause the global economic crisis, yet governments, employers and right-wing pundits are intent on making union members pay for the on-going recovery using cynical attacks on fundamental collective bargaining rights, forcing through cuts to wages, pensions and benefits.
Day three’s morning plenary saw delegates turned their minds to bargaining models and strategies to push back against austerity driven attacks. The discussion started with a panel of CUPE regional and assistant regional directors from regions across the country.
Panelist outlined the many challenges facing CUPE members in bargaining, what has worked in their respective regions in the fight back, and offered advice for delegates.
“We’ve had to build solidarity, and build the coordination,” said Rhonda Spence, assistance regional director for B.C., who outlined the regions experience using coordinated bargaining to fend off the Clark Liberal government. “We’ve always believed in coordinated bargaining in B.C., but under the austerity agenda of the provincial government it’s become even more essential.”
The importance of solidarity between bargaining committees, leadership and members was echoed by the other panelists. Communications was singled out as key to developing this essential part of successful bargaining.
“The membership always has to be the focus of our communications,” said Gordon Black, regional director for the Maritimes region. “If the membership are informed, aware of the issues, and firmly behind the committee, the bargaining committee has a much better chance to achieve a good deal for the members.”
“Honesty with the membership is important - good news or bad. Members need to be informed to make good decisions,” added Linda Thurston-Neeley, the regional director for Ontario.
Thurston-Neeley also said gaining support outside the union - from the general public - is also important when facing political attacks. “The broader public sector is getting beat up out there, we need to find ways to build public support.”
Denis Plante, regional director for Quebec, agreed. “You need to keep in touch with people. If you want them to stick with you through negotiations, you need to be communicating with them. If you don’t, this is where trust can erode, and erode very quickly.”
The panelists, and many of the delegates who spoke at the mics during the Q&A session, made calls for solidarity in bargaining within and across unions - and that solidarity must be used to spur broader change.
Spence summed up the sentiment. “As leaders, we need to understand the politics of the austerity agenda. We need to change the political landscape - we have to take that political action, and get change at the provincial and federal levels.”
Answering the tough questions
CUPE’s national officers were front and centre for the national bargaining conferences afternoon plenary session. National President Paul Moist and National Secretary-Treasurer Charles Fleury took questions from delegates on a wide range of issues. For the first time at a national CUPE gathering, social media was used for questions and comments, submitted over Twitter.
Delegates from across the country asked about the use of national resources, staff and financial support for bargaining and campaigns, and the priorities of national political action, among many other topics.
Finding new ways to mobilize members was another key theme. “The only way forward is organizing to win the hearts and minds of our members. This is going to mean wearing out some shoes,” said Moist, pointing out a conference like this one is in step in that direction. “This is the first time the leaders of this union have sat in a room and talked about nothing but bargaining, and it shouldn’t be the last.”
The conference concludes Friday morning.
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