Thanks to the growing income gap between the richest and poorest citizens, and relentless labour-bashing by the federal Conservative and BC Liberal governments, CUPE members have more cause than ever to unite across sectors and work with other unions to restore free collective bargaining, CUPE National president Paul Moist told delegates in his keynote address on Tuesday night.
Moist began his remarks by commenting on BC Liberal Finance Minister Kevin Falcon’s response to a BC Statistics report, which revealed yesterday that B.C. has the largest income gap in the country between the top and bottom 20 per cent. (Falcon, dismissing concern about the gap, was quoted as saying: “In Cuba, they don’t have any income inequality because they’re all poor.”)
“I cannot believe that the finance minister would be capable of saying something like that,” said Moist. “I would like to send Mr. Falcon somewhere, but it wouldn’t be Cuba, because I like the people of Cuba. I would like to send Mr. Falcon and his crew to the unemployment line.”
Common cause in common struggles
On the international front, the erosion of labour rights can be seen in countries like Greece, Spain, Italy and France, where the clock is being turned back on public services. “It was public investment that pulled the global economy out of recession,” said Moist, but the current thinking is that “debt has to be paid back by reduced public services and putting the thumb down on public employees.”
In the U.S., this can be seen in the legislative attack on workers in places like Wisconsin, where contract language on benefits and pensions are against the law, compulsory union dues reductions have been scrapped, and unions are subject to annual compulsory recertification. The good news, said Moist, is that workers fought back: last week, a petition to recall Governor Scott Walker that required 500,000 signatures, was submitted with just over one million.
In Canada, said Moist, the majority Harper Conservatives weren’t in office two months when they locked out Canada Post Workers, ended rotating strikes and legislated CUPW members back to work for less money. At Air Canada, the right to strike was taken away. Moist condemned these actions, as well as Harper’s attack on the pension plan, announced last week at the world economic forum in Davos.
“Harper had no courage to say this during the election or on Canadian soil, but in a Swiss resort before some of the richest people in the world,” said Moist. “I was furious at that gutless announcement, and there’s no way we’re going to allow the government to steal $12,000 in retiree benefits and force people to work until they’re 67.”
Moist also urged delegates to support private sector workers, who face similar struggles. He cited the example of Caterpillar, which despite record profits in the final half of 2011 has announced plans for a 50-per-cent wage rollback and vastly reduced benefits.
A proud history of resistance
Moist noted that CUPE members in B.C. have shown the strength and courage to fight back against unjust treatment, particularly during the relentless attack on workers’ rights that took place in the last decade. The solidarity strikes of 2004, when the BC Liberals slashed 8,000 Hospital Employees’ Union jobs, and 2005, when BC Teachers’ Federation picket lines swelled with the ranks of CUPE K-12 members from across the province, showed what we can do collectively.
“There are no solutions that can be taken off the shelf from other other countries and elsewhere in Canada that will exactly fit your situation,” said Moist. “The solutions in B.C. will be fashioned in B.C., and our union will work together, as we always do, with other unions, with the federation of labour, and with communities who want nothing to do with the destruction of free collective bargaining.”
The CUPE National president concluded by reminding delegates of recent successes at the ballot box and on the public relations front.
“During your municipal elections, I can recall Googling for the referendum results in Abbotsford, where we defeated a P3 and a mayor lost his job over it,” said Moist. “The Ten Per cent Shift—that is what reaching out to the community is about. There is a litany of absolutely wonderful community connection that exists in every corner of B.C., and CUPE is everywhere.”
Moist, citing the example of Manitoba—which has preserved public hydro, auto insurance and health care, including paramedics’ right to strike—also reaffirmed the importance of political affiliation with the NDP.
“This is my own belief as an historian, and from 30 years of working for CUPE: Alignment with a political party is not a panacea, and we won’t get everything we want; but non alignment with a political party is an absolute guarantee of mediocrity.”