Nova Scotias highway workers, members of CUPE 1867, fought back and won, forcing the Tories to shelve their controversial contracting-out scheme.
Taking the Tories to task
The highway workers got wind of the governments privatization plans through a brief item in an obscure ministry bulletin. The Tories intended to hand over four large-scale pilot projects to private contractors. With a spring 2001 launch date, 400 jobs would be lost.
The Local was clear this meant the beginning of the end of all public roadwork in the province.
The government called this a pilot project, but we knew what was really going on, said CUPE 1867 president Gareth Drinnan. Premier Hamm promised his private contractor buddies that backed him in the last election a piece of the public-sector pie. We knew that if the government had its way, by 2003, there would be nothing left of the department.
Local 1867 immediately leapt into action, getting in touch with its members across the province, outlining the threat and calling on them to fight.
You cant write off the threat of privatization as some sleepless giant, said Gareth. We immediately jumped on the information and the entire membership sprang into action. Members recognized that we were all in this fight together and that if we didnt take control and effectively mobilize against the governments agenda we would lose.
The highway workers launched their Roads Are Not a Private Matter campaign at Province House home of the provincial legislative assembly. But they focussed their efforts in smaller communities across Nova Scotia.
Throughout the summer, they met with people at festivals and parades, in local shopping malls and door to door. Armed with leaflets, pins, postcards and a booklet outlining road privatization horror stories from other parts of the country, members warned their neighbours that private highways will erode services and cost taxpayers more.
Our fight wasnt with government in downtown Halifax, said Gareth. This fight belonged in the outlying communities that would be effected most by the governments decision. Its the people in these communities who rely on provincial roads and highways for business as well as for their own personal well-being.
Canvassers asked people to sign a campaign postcard, then collected, stamped and sent off the cards to local MLAs. For weeks, government members were bombarded with postcards arriving on their desks each day.
An intensive lobbying campaign focused on fire fighters, paramedics, police and elected community officials, turning a provincial affair into a vital local issue where communities were demanding their voice be heard. Endorsements for the campaign made headlines in community papers across the province almost every week. In the end, the highway workers received letters of support from over 20 municipalities.
Were instrumental in ensuring that roads are clear and safe for emergency personnel, said Gareth. Community leaders, police officers, fire fighters and paramedics were as concerned over the governments plan to privatize roads as we were.
With the campaign in full swing, and with the Local putting their finishing touches on a fightback strategy that would see them through to Christmas, the provincial government backed down.
The minister did not explain his about-turn, but Gareth cites the campaign as the main factor.
We fought the campaign based on facts, said Gareth. We outlined the pitfalls to privatization. We alerted the government as well as the public of the disastrous road privatization schemes in other provinces and in 120 short days, the department reversed its decision.
Unfortunately, the spectre of contracting out roadwork in the province isnt gone for good. With the pilot projects dead the Tories are looking to privatize other aspects of roadwork. But the highway workers refuse to give in, demanding contracting out language that ensures roadwork in Nova Scotia remains public.