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Allison Gifford spoke with CUPE National President Paul Moist about what CUPE is doing in response to the current economic crisis.

AG: Twenty-five years of deregulation, privatization and free trade have put us on the path to recession. However, employers and some governments may attack union wages as part of the problem. As a national union, where do we go from here?

PM: During that time wages for Canadian workers barely moved in real terms. Meanwhile regulation and oversight of banking and insurance businesses in the United States relaxed, setting the stage for global economic collapse that hit last September.

So this recession is certainly not caused by wage increases.

But we can expect right-wing governments and some employers to use the recession to attack collective bargaining, wages and benefits, which is why in our March meeting, our National Executive Board (NEB) adopted a plan to defend free collective bargaining and to right concessions.

In times like this we must do what we do best: organize, think strategically and fight smart.

AG: What does this mean for activists entering bargaining?

PM: I think we can expect tough negotiations with some employers demanding wage and benefit concessions. This isn’t new, but it may be wider in scope and there is no question our resolve to resist such concessions will be tested.

So bargaining committees need to work closely with their assigned CUPE staff, We need to be disciplined and ready for whatever we might face. Communications with rank and file members is always important - more so in my view in times like this. Finally, our members need our assurance that whether they are a group of 6, 60 or 600 members, they are part of Canada’s largest and strongest union and they will have the support of the entire national union whenever the need arises.

AG: You have been travelling across the country to CUPE regional division conventions. Have members expressed concerns about the economic crisis?

PM: The recession and what it has done to communities was front and centre at this spring’s CUPE Division conventions.

Many CUPE members have family members and friends who have lost their jobs. Many members know workers who have been denied access to employment insurance benefits.

And members also shared stories about how some employers were raising issues regarding collective bargaining and the need for restraint.

People know we are in “choppier waters”, in economic terms, but they are determined to do a good job for the members we serve.

AG: Recently, we have seen unions such as the Canadian Auto Workers fighting to save workers’ pensions. Has there been a united response from the labour movement to the economic crisis?

PM: They didn’t cause the mess that the big three auto firms find themselves in. Notwithstanding this, the CAW agreed to extend these contracts in 2008, basically freezing wages for three years. They still faced an unprecedented, shameful attack from the industry, the media and the Harper government.

And we have one of the most productive auto industries in the world. In fact if CAW members took no wages in 2009 the average cost of a new vehicle would drop only by about $800.

I am proud that CUPE members have stood with private sector workers who are under attack in Canada. I marched with laid off Steelworkers and hundreds of CUPE supporters in Hamilton. In Newfoundland and Labrador, CUPE has stood with CEP members who have been laid off in the pulp and paper industry. In BC our leadership have included the Steelworkers in our provincial tour of communities talking about a new vision for building strong communities. And in Ontario, CUPE activists and leadership have been front and centre in CAW demonstrations to save pensions and to defend the auto industry.

Each of the above efforts tells me that our members get it. That we know that if we don’t defend good paying private sector jobs we can’t have the strong communities we all want.

AG: What direction would you like to see CUPE going in response to the current times? What kind of achievements would you like to see?

PM: I am pleased at the level and tone of the debate I have seen at this spring’s provincial conventions and I am glad our national convention is this fall in Montreal.

It is important for us meet and to reaffirm our commitment to organizing, to bargaining good agreements and to servicing the members we are privileged to represent. Beyond CUPE, it is equally important for us to stand strong with other Canadian workers who are being hit hard by the recession, as well, we are global activists and we cannot let the global recession be used by some who wish to deny basic trade union rights to workers around the world.

CUPE members will survive this recession in the same way we have others. We will organize, we’ll pool resources and forge unity to advance an agenda to build strong communities with strong public services available to all Canadians.