Alia Karim | CUPE Staff
CUPE members have defended high-quality public services since our union’s inception in 1963. Privatization is an ever-present threat – one we faced then, and still face every day.
Private sector employers are interested in taking over public services to boost their profits. They stand to make more money by cutting staff and busting unions, thus eliminating pressure for better wages and benefits. Contracting out can drive down wages and worsen working conditions across an entire sector, hurting all workers. But this also means the public loses access to high-quality public services that are more responsive to their needs and priorities.
There is a growing global movement to stop contracting out and bring jobs and services into (or back into) the public sector. The benefits of using qualified in-house workers are not only aimed at delivering better public services, but also at improving working conditions for all workers and building thriving communities. CUPE’s Stop Contracting Out Guide outlines how public services help people get out of poverty, facilitate more equal economic opportunities, and focus on improving public health and well-being.
That is why fighting privatization has always been a priority at CUPE: we shouldn’t have to live in a society where our quality of life is sold to the lowest bidder.
Here, we celebrate some of the significant campaigns where CUPE members fought, and most often won, against contracting out and privatization.
CUPE and labour movement allies win Canada’s first public pension plan in 1966
In the 60s, the private insurance industry saw the proposed public pension plan as a threat to their profits and launched a huge campaign to reject the Canada Pension Plan and advocate for privately-run workplace pension plans. Before the CPP was established in 1966, seniors were falling into poverty and the public pension system consisted only of a meagre Old Age Security payment available from age 70.
In 1966, the labour movement scored a significant victory in the creation of Canada’s first public pension plan. Ever since, CUPE members have built labour-community coalitions to defend other public services, like Medicare or child care, against ongoing attempts by conservative governments to privatize them.
CUPE locals push back against waste collection privatization
Early in CUPE’s history, members working in municipalities across the country fought against corporations bidding to take over waste collection. In 1973, CUPE 500 gathered 20,000 signatures to stop contracting out of their work. More than 2,000 CUPE members and allies gathered at a Winnipeg City Council meeting to oppose the contracting out of waste collection. The city responded by referring the matter for further study by the works and operations committee.
CUPE 500 has engaged in anti-privatization campaigns ever since. And ever since, CUPE has argued that the public sector is the right choice to deliver public services, not only because it is financially competitive, but also because it provides better and safer jobs. CUPE municipal locals have won major victories against contracting out and have brought services back in-house in numerous municipalities — Beauport (QC), Kingston (ON), Conception Bay South (NL), and Port Moody (B.C.) to name a few.
CUPE 79 and the sustained fight against contracting out in Toronto
In 1996, CUPE 79 in Toronto won a resounding victory against the contracting out of the 10 Metro Toronto Homes for the Aged where they represented nearly 3,000 dietary, housekeeping, nursing and clerical staff. CUPE 79 fought against private sector long-term care operators who had been lobbying politicians to privatize the homes. When the city struck a task force to consider contracting out, members created a newsletter and asked their stewards to make deputations to the task force. The pressure from workers and community members prevailed as Toronto’s Metro Council decided to keep the long-term care homes public.
Fifteen years later, when Toronto Mayor Rob Ford announced his intention to privatize cleaning staff in municipal buildings, CUPE 79 worked with the Toronto and York Region Labour Council on a campaign called Justice and Dignity for Cleaners to advocate for these important jobs. In 2012, members won over Toronto city councillors with direct appeals, making deputations at committees, holding press conferences, and most importantly telling their personal stories about why keeping services in-house matters for workers, and for the community.
CUPE Saskatchewan protects health care from 90s trade agreement
In 1998, CUPE Saskatchewan worked with the Council of Canadians and community coalitions against the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAl) which would have allowed U.S.-based health management organizations to privatize health services. CUPE Saskatchewan wrote to the 30 District Health Boards in the province, and to all provincial and federal health ministers, urging them to abandon the MAl negotiations.
Members’ efforts paid off as the Federation of Canadian Municipalities passed a resolution expressing their concern with the MAI and international negotiations were discontinued.
Winning the race against contracting out of education work
In the late 90s and early 2000s, several CUPE locals resisted attempts by corporations to profit off the education sector.
“Big corporations offer to build schools, rent them back to boards and then sell them to the board after 35 years. They’re called Public-Private Partnerships (PPP), but Picking the Public’s Pockets is a more accurate term.” In fact, the September 1998 issue of CUPE’s magazine Organize featured a great number of members’ stories fighting to save schools across the country from threats of privatization. “Schools get run down toward the end of the period and we inherit a mess,” said CUPE 1280 member Michael Hennessy.
CUPE members prevailed when, in June 2000, the Nova Scotia government cancelled its P3 schools project. The 38 new schools cost Nova Scotia taxpayers $32 million more than initially anticipated. CUPE had warned the government that P3 schools are more expensive than doing conventional builds financed through the public sector because private developers want to make profits.
In Calgary, CUPE 520 had a 9-week strike against a catholic school board over contracting out. And in Edmonton, CUPE 474 successfully pushed back against a plan to contract out cleaners in one-third of their schools as private companies proved costly. Finally in Winnipeg, CUPE 1112 forced their school division to cancel a decision to contract out school buses.
Defeating proposed water public-private partnerships since the 90s
For decades, CUPE locals have defended municipal water systems against corporations who try to commercialize them. Since the 90s, CUPE has partnered with community groups to fight off plans for public-private partnerships (P3s) which have been proven to be more expensive, more secretive, and less accountable to the public. CUPE and community allies set up dozens of Water Watch campaigns to successfully reject P3 water and sewage treatment projects across Canada, notably on Vancouver Island and in White Rock (B.C.), Winnipeg, Regina, and Taber (AB).
In 2005, CUPE commissioned public opinion research on the issue, with good results. In B.C., for instance, nearly 9 out of 10 people agreed that “water is a basic public service and should always remain in public hands”.
“We did a big show in Montreal, and that show was so well mediatized and had so much impact on the public opinion, that the government had to think about it. And then, the minister said “I think we shouldn’t privatize”. So it’s really local opposition that makes a difference,” said Gabrielle Pelletier, director of the Quebec Environmental Network in CUPE’s video H2O: The Price of Privatization which helped kick off the Water Watch movement.
Fast forward a quarter century and the vast majority of municipal water systems in Canada are still publicly owned and run, many operated by CUPE members. Our union is proud to have stemmed the tide of water privatization. CUPE continues to advocate against P3 water projects and water injustice which has a tremendous impact on Indigenous peoples. To learn more, take the pledge that’s part of our Water is life campaign: cupe.ca/water-is-life
Nova Scotia highway workers advocate for public highways
CUPE 1867 highway workers forced Nova Scotia’s conservative government to back down in the summer of 2000 on a plan to privatize highway maintenance work. Their campaign Roads are not a private matter mobilized members across the province to knock on doors, approach politicians and solicit community leaders for support.
Despite this resounding victory, CUPE 1867 remains in an ongoing fight to defend Nova Scotia’s highways from P3 projects and other forms of privatization.
Unions join forces in 80s Our Air Canada – Preserve The Trust campaign
In 1987, a standing committee recommended the federal government explore options for privatizing Air Canada “so that it could better manage its affairs”. Airlines worldwide were having financial difficulties at that time, facing a recession, the high cost of fuel and equipment, and high taxation rates. CUPE’s Airline Division, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, and the Canadian Auto Workers, representing 14,000 workers at Air Canada, jointly launched an information campaign exposing the myths of privatization.
“The twin wrongs of deregulation and privatization don’t make a right. The deregulation of our airline industry means there is an even greater need for the government to continue to operate Air Canada as a Crown corporation and preserve service and jobs throughout all of Canada,” reacted CUPE Airline Division President Richard Nolan to the government’s plan to begin selling off Air Canada shares in 1988.
Unfortunately, the airline was privatized a year later, and kept operating at a loss during the 90s.
City of Rimouski decides to publicly manage operations in new sports complex
CUPE Quebec has organized countless anti-privatization campaigns to oppose public-private partnerships (P3s) and the contracting out of municipal services, including recreation services, snow removal, and public transportation.
In 2018, for example, CUPE successfully campaigned to keep services in-house at the City of Rimouski sports complex. CUPE 5275 worked closely with the Public Works Department and Human Resources, convincing the municipality that this is a decision that makes the best use of taxpayers’ dollars. City workers were proud to take on the day-to-day operations at the new venue.
CUPE is the largest union in the municipal sector in Quebec and has spent several decades tracking the risks that arise from privatization and P3s.
HEU wins reversal of privatization of cleaning and dietary work in B.C. hospitals
In 2018, the B.C. NDP government introduced Bill 47, the Health Sector Statutes Repeal Act, which reversed the privatization of thousands of jobs in hospitals and long-term care homes. This victory is a response to HEU members’ determination to bring those jobs back in-house to the local health authorities for almost 20 years. They celebrated this massive win that also restored workers’ pensions, benefits and wages which had been cut in the early 2000s.