When the 650 members of CUPE 109 waged a six-week strike against the city of Kingston in 1999, their contracting out language was one of the key strike issues. With then mayor Gary Bennett leading the charge, the strike by inside, outside and transit workers was bitter and acrimonious.
By all accounts, Local 109 had one of the strongest collective agreements in the municipal sector. Council was out to change that.
So it was no great surprise when a year later, an over-zealous city council decided the time was right to take advantage of the new language in the contract and do a little ‘outsourcing’. But they underestimated the collective strength of Kingston municipal workers, not to mention the community’s disdain for backroom deals.
It began as most privatization schemes do: a promise of huge cost-savings from a company with visions of dollar signs in its future. In this case, a local company called Robinson Solutions with a background in janitorial services but no actual experience with residential recycling or garbage collection.
According to Robinson, the city could save $1million a year by giving them the contract.
News of the emerging plan hit the Whig-Standard, the city’s daily newspaper, in early September and travelled fast among labour and community activists.
A coalition is born
By day Karl Flecker is a policy analyst in the equity department at Queen’s University. David McDonald is a Queen’s geography professor.
The two are long-time Kingston residents and community activists who had seen enough of the backroom wheeling and dealing that had come to typify Kingston city council over the last few years.
Familiar with CUPE’s anti-privatization work across the country, they decided to contact the union and see if a partnership could be formed.
At the same time there was quite the buzz brewing among Local 109 members, and it wasn’t limited to those working in solid waste. If the city could privatize garbage and recycling, who knows what could be next?
A meeting with Flecker and McDonald was arranged and the outlines of a labour/community coalition to fight privatization were discussed at great length.
Cheryl McArthur, who served as the union co-chair of the coalition, says “we were acutely aware that our critics would see this as the union only being interested in our members’ jobs.
“By taking the coalition approach we were able to silence those criticisms,” says McArthur.
The longtime Kingston municipal worker, who works in the city’s parks and recreation department, had herself received a baptism by fire in the 1999 strike, when she ‘volunteered’ to chair the local’s communications committee. She quickly discovered how essential membership communications was – and how public opinion was key in disputes in the public sector.
The union agreed to form a small committee to work with the community activists. With support from CUPE Communications, work on the fightback campaign began almost immediately.
The Kingston Coalition Against Privatization (CAP, for short) had been born.
The CAP campaign
In politics, they say, timing is everything. Timing and luck, one might add.
As luck would have it, Kingston’s newest coalition was taking shape just weeks before the November municipal elections. This meant there was no time to waste. But it also meant city councillors would be particularly vulnerable.
CAP worked to make the garbage scheme a key issue in the election campaign. With the politicians now widely criticized for the complete lack of public consultation, the campaign theme was chosen accordingly…Kingston’s Garbage – It’s not a Private Matter!
Says Flecker, “Teaming up with Kingston municipal workers turned out to be the most effective way of defeating this proposal. We had strong support in the community and from Local 109 members from the word go.”
“Sure, working in coalition is the tougher route…scheduling meetings to work for everyone, navigating differences of opinion, analysis and strategy. But ultimately, that is what makes us stronger and more powerful,” he says.
CAP quickly produced campaign materials and established a strong presence in the community. Phone calls were made, environmentalists were enlisted and friendly councillors were contacted to make sure the coalition was getting all of the inside information.
Leaflets were dropped in every household in Kingston. A request was submitted to address city council on the issue. Three presenters were put forward by the coalition: David Payne, a CUPE sanitation worker with 26 years experience; Nancy Bayly, a local environmentalist; and CAP co-chair David McDonald. A lively and well-attended info picket on the front steps of Kingston’s historic city hall preceded the presentation.
Lobbying focused in on members of the city’s environment and transportation committee, the group that would be making the recommendation to council.
By late October, after weeks of hard work and a surprising number of front-page stories in the local press, the committee made its final recommendation: that no action on the privatization plan be taken by the current council.
At council’s final meeting before the municipal election, the vote not to proceed was a knockout punch: 16-0.
Members of the new city council now hope to proceed with a period of thorough consultation with residents who had been shut out of the earlier decision-making. They want to look at new systems of garbage collection including composting and wet-dry recyclable sorting and they promise to look at the impact on employees of the options under consideration.
Oh, and Gary Bennett, the mayor who lead the bitter fight against city workers? He was soundly defeated in the November election. So were a half-dozen other pro-privatization councillors.
Kingston’s new mayor, Isabel Turner, says she intends to ask staff for solutions, rather than turning to privatization for service improvements. The new mayor also says boosting staff morale will be one of her first priorities.
Reflecting on the success of the win, Flecker says, “We don’t get enough opportunities to savour our wins for social justice and public good, but trashing a half dozen privateers from the city council was a moment that will have a lasting flavour.”
“I think what we demonstrated,” says Flecker, “is that diverse community groups and CUPE members working in coalition can hold back rash privatization moves.”
On perhaps an even more positive note, Flecker adds, “Folks in Kingston were really eager to work hand in hand with public sector workers in a coalition. That, frankly, surprised the hell out of the privateers on city council. It was a surprise that left many of them out of a job.”
Local 109’s McArthur, for her part, says, “This victory couldn’t have come at a better time for our local. To be honest, a lot of people were still licking their wounds from the strike and we really needed to show our members that we had not lost the ability to fight.”
Says McArthur, “Even the mood at the union’s annual Christmas party this year was much more upbeat than it was last year. People were starting to get a little bit of that ‘fire in the belly’ back, and we needed that.”
I’m voting for garbage collectors
I have never met the people who collect my garbage, but I like to think they have a decent life. I doubt they’ll ever get rich, but I hope they have their own homes or nice apartments. I hope they can afford to wear, eat and drink the things they want. I hope they can take the kids on a holiday every year, and I want them to get a pension when they retire. My garbage collector does me a good turn, and I don’t mind chipping in to see that he or she gets a living wage. In the upcoming municipal election, I’m voting for the people who collect my garbage.
Editorial, John Kearney, Whig-Standard
community editorial board member, October 11
P3s a ‘gimmick,’ meeting told
The term public-private partnership is a gimmick designed to fool people into thinking they are going to get something for nothing, a public meeting on a proposed public-private health-care partnership was told last night.
Ann Lukit, Whig-Standard staff writer, October 31
Kingston needs a garbage plan
As with the Block D fiasco [a P3 redevelopment scheme], council charged ahead without a clear objective. That’s because the city lacks a waste/recyclables strategy. It should consider municipal control, environmental issues including a plan to reduce waste, wet/dry waste separation and collection, as well as the fate of city employees.
Editorial, Whig-Standard, October 23
Labour Pains best read of election campaign
The best read of this campaign is Labour Pains, the quarterly newsletter of Local 109 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees. The special election issue reminds workers of the
40-day strike last year and tells the lucky souls in the public sector that unlike most workers, they get to elect their own bosses.
Councillors who supported the city workers during the strike get high marks from the union, as do left-leaning hopefuls in the districts. Bricks are thrown at those who didn’t support CUPE, including Mayor Gary Bennett and Deputy Mayor Carl Holmberg.
Ian Elliot, Whig-Standard staff writer, November 13
Keep our public services public
We believe the city needs waste management services that are publicly controlled, fiscally prudent and environmentally sensitive. KCAP and other citizens’ groups are prepared to engage in constructive dialogue on how to achieve these goals.
Public service means public control accountable to us, the public. Private service means private control, accountable only to shareholders. We’ve done the research to prove this. Every place where public services have been privatized for profit – in Canada, the United States, Great Britain, France, New Zealand, South Africa, South America – the result has been higher costs, user fees, less service, lost jobs, and environmental calamities that the public has to clean up. Why not keep public services public in the first place?
Commentary, Whig-Standard, December 12, by Karl Flecker, David McDonald and Paul Norris