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As the days count down to the turn of the century, women are scrambling to protect their hard-won gains. The source of the backward push: privatization of public services, which threatens to create havoc in women’s lives at home, at work and in their union.

While the government hand-over of our schools, hospitals, nursing homes, roads and other vital public services is eroding a way of life that men and women built and benefited from, the invasion of the privatizers has especially far-reaching consequences for women.

Corporate profiteers are devouring good jobs and services where women are the majority of the workers. Many of the jobs privatizers and contractors have set their sights on – and that deficit-obsessed governments are more than willing to wash their hands of – are jobs held by women. Clerical, health care, social services, education, cleaning and cooking jobs often top the list of candidates for contracting out.

Privatization of these jobs also means services that eased the burden women traditionally shoul-dered at home and in their communities are now threatened with extinction.

A triple blow to women

For CUPE and other unions, the ripple effects of these changes will touch every corner of the union. CUPE is losing women members at a time when women are more active than ever in the union. The quality of the public services CUPE members provide is being seriously compromised. And for those women left behind after a round of privatization, the mushrooming workloads confronting them on the job and in the home cut into the time they have to be active in their locals.

But the effects of the restructuring being forced on the public sector reach far beyond the paid workplace. When retirement home costs spiral out of reach, when patients get released earlier than they should after surgery, or when hospital food becomes so intolerable that patients’ families cook meals and bring them in, work gets shoved back where women have worked so hard to move it from: the unpaid and isolated domain of the home.

Mike Harris can cut because he knows women will pick up the pieces,” says June Muir, on the phone from the picket line outside the Windsor-Essex Community Care Access Centre (CCAC). Muir, president of Local 3626, was leading her members – the overwhelming majority of them women – in a strike she says was “about the future of health care.” Local 3626 members, CCAC support staff workers, play a key role in making sure health care and support reaches patients in their homes.

The Ontario government created CCACs as an easy way to ration funding for community-based health care. At the Windsor-Essex CCAC, the first signs of privatization have begun to creep in. Nursing service providers must now bid for contracts in what Muir worries will become a race for the lowest cost, not the highest quality of service.

So while the CCAC is still in theory a public service, the stage is being set for the all-out privatization of this important point of contact with the health care system. Bidding to provide nursing services marks the beginning of a process that inevitably pushes down workers’ wages while compromising quality and access. It’s a pattern that’s unfolding across the country.

From paid work to hidden burden

The public sector was a place where women could go to achieve a wage that allowed them to provide for their families,” says Judith Mongrain, president of Local 87, which fought and won a lengthy battle against contracting out this summer with the City of Thunder Bay. “Now, it’s harder for women to provide. They’re being ghettoized back into undervalued jobs,” she says.

In Thunder Bay, the first jobs threatened by contacting out were men’s jobs. But “the women were one hundred per cent behind the men. There was no question. Because at some point, we knew it would affect everyone,” emphasizes Mongrain.

In British Columbia, CUPE workers at Langley’s two newly-privatized ice arenas are picking up the pieces after losing a hard-fought and well-planned battle to keep the arenas in public hands. The union is busy trying to find placements for all the workers in the new regime, says Local 403 president Joanne Reece. The collective agreement prevents the employer laying anyone off as a result of contracting out. But as one example of the difficult transition, a woman who headed concessions may be forced to pick up garbage outside the arena. “Needless to say, morale is right in the toilet,” says Reece.

In Manitoba, contracting out of the Winnipeg Convention Centre’s housekeeping last year meant a group of workers who were mostly women – some with over 20 years of service – lost jobs that paid a decent wage and were steady work. Local 500 president Paul Moist says cleaning and custodial jobs “are on the front line for contracting out. And it’s women that will lose out.”

For CUPE 500, contracting out of housekeeping meant the loss of 36 members, including the president of the local’s convention centre unit, Sue Favell. Favell, a single mother and Aboriginal woman, couldn’t find other work and has since returned to her reserve. The local fought hard to save the jobs, even designing a plan to restructure housekeeping work that would have saved the Convention Centre over $200,000 a year. But in the end, the centre’s drive to cut costs left them fixated on finding non-unionized workers who would accept minimum wage, and left the CUPE workers on the streets.

Stories of both front-door and back-door privatization are cropping up in virtually every community across the country. In Nova Scotia, private lease-back schools threaten cleaning, cafeteria, bus driver and teaching assistant jobs. Private hospitals loom on the horizon in Prince Edward Island and Alberta. And in Quebec, deep cuts to public services have left the province’s hospitals, community health care centres and nursing homes gasping for air.

Another barrier to equality

This cross-country push to privatization and the loss of jobs it represents are huge roadblocks for the inroads CUPE has been making when it comes to Aboriginal women, women of colour, immigrant women and lesbian and bisexual women.

When you start out last and are trying to gain, privatization throws a huge wrench in the works,” says national staff representative Carmen Henry. “Workers of colour can easily become the target of a backlash among the workers left behind,” she says. As an example, she describes a situation where registered nurses are laid off, but the lower-paid health care aides are kept on and given some of the nurses’ tasks. “Those aides are predominantly visible minority women. They’re kept because they’re cheap labour.” Henry says they become prime targets for resentment, harassment and discrimination.

When people face a layoff, it’s easy to blame the person beside you, especially if they’re not like you,” says Glenda Smith, a Winnipeg triage worker, Local 2343 member and a member of CUPE’s Pink Triangle Committee.

Really, people should be mad at management. I wish they would focus their energy on the right target,” she says.

When it comes down to it, women are in for the fight of their lives to stem the tide of privatization and contracting out. It’s a fight for good jobs, a strong union, and a healthy community. And it’s a fight that can be won!

CUPE fighting back

In Québec clerical layoffs at the Societé Immobilière du Québec, the provincial agency that cares for government buildings, led to a creative solution to contracting out of electrician work. Nearly 100 members of Local 2929, mainly female clerical workers, lost their jobs in a 1995 restructuring. At the same time the employer was looking to contract out electricians’ work as they retired.

So the local negotiated an apprenticeship program that gives the laid-off workers access to training and on-the-job experience as electricians and ventilation system mechanics. The majority of trainees in both fields are women, including Hélène Simard, who is training to become an electrician. Once she’s completed her training and is certified, she must work her first four years with the Societé, and is guaranteed a job there as long as she wants it.

Simard had been a clerical worker for 13 years, but she was happy to make the change. “It was too routine, I wasn’t happy sitting all day. It wasn’t a hard decision [to enter the retraining program],” she says. Saving the electrician jobs was a part of the local’s plan to find the laid-off workers jobs. It’s a plan that gives women access to training in an area of work women don’t traditionally take on. And while the local didn’t get as many apprentice positions as it had proposed, the program is an example of one way to prevent privatization.

Often fighting back means thinking ahead. And that’s exactly what Local 500 is doing in Winnipeg. The local is close to securing funding to study the future of clerical work in the city. Local 500 represents about 750 clerical employees who are “very nervous about their future,” says Paul Moist. The study will look at issues like new information technologies, and the need to retrain and update clerical workers.

These are the forgotten class of worker,” says Moist. When he discusses the project at workplace meetings the female workers are excited that their union takes their issues so seriously and are eager to participate, even though some may never have been active before.

It’s about trying to get in front of an issue instead of worrying about it after the city makes changes,” says Moist.

Fighting contracting out and privatization also means rethinking how the union works. “The challenge is to create the environment where women are encouraged to participate and be active,” says Moist. Often this can mean small but often-overlooked details, like paying childcare as well as per diems at membership meetings. Or holding meetings at a time when single mothers find it easiest to come. Or making sure women are encouraged to take on steward or other activist roles.

Reaching out

Fighting back also means involving the community. When corporate behemoth ServiceMaster came to Prince Edward Island hoping to gobble up cleaning, maintenance and groundskeeping jobs in the Eastern District School Board, Local 1775 members sprang into action. They made links with workers in places where ServiceMaster had taken over cleaning contracts, gathering horror stories about the chemicals that were introduced and the deteriorating cleaning quality. Armed with information about what could happen to PEI schools, the local spread the word among its members as well as to parent groups, teachers and sympathetic school board members.

The quality of our schools would have gone south in a hurry,” says Local president Marsha Arsenault. “Parents didn’t want kids in a dirty school or an unsafe environment.” In small towns where schools are a focal point for community events, the threat of an ill-kept school mobilized public pressure on the school board to the point where the board backed away from its plan to contract out the jobs. If ServiceMaster had won the contract, the board’s part-time custodians, who are mostly women, would have been the first to lose their jobs.

A similar, community-based approach worked well in British Columbia, where the province was moving to centralize emergency dispatching services for police, fire and ambulance. “We focused on public safety,” says Local 403 President Joanne Reece. “We showed that each community needs the skilled professionals who know the region or town inside and out. You don’t get that in a centralized system.” Reece, Local 403 and other community members were able to convince their municipal council not to contract their police communications services to the centralized dispatching system.

Key to a successful fightback will be CUPE’s ability to shed light on the many negative repercussions of privatization and contracting out. That includes shining the spotlight on ways privatization and contracting out hurt women. CUPE’s national women’s conference will help build that analysis and awareness. And CUPE’s Public Works! campaign will continue to build broader community support for strong, well-funded public services.

In the end, it’s a fight every CUPE member has to take on. It’s up to all of us to stop the clock from turning back on women’s gains – to save women’s jobs, and to keep the services we rely on in public hands.

Karin Jordan