Private-Sector and Public-Sector Workers Are in This Together: Priority #5: Rebuild Active Solidarity within the Labour Movement

By Levine, Gil | Labour/Le Travail, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Private-Sector and Public-Sector Workers Are in This Together: Priority #5: Rebuild Active Solidarity within the Labour Movement


Levine, Gil, Labour/Le Travail


IN SOME WAYS, PRIVATE-SECTOR and public-sector union members almost seem to inhabit two different worlds. Unionization in the public sector is close to 80 per cent, and has held steady over the last two decades. In the private sector, unionization has been eroding, and is now below 20 per cent. The battles fought by public sector workers are just as tough as those in the private sector, to be sure--as demonstrated by the vicious attacks on public sector workers that have recently been unleashed. But so far the brunt of the economic crisis has hit private-sector unionists first, especially in hard-hit sectors like manufacturing and forestry: hundreds of thousands of jobs have been lost, and private-sector unions face incredible pressure for concessions.

So in the wake of the current economic crisis and the intensification of attacks on unions from both employers and governments, it seems obvious that public-sector and private-sector workers are ultimately in the same boat--and they badly need each other, if they are to keep that boat afloat. There is a glaring need to rebuild active solidarity between public and private sector unions, as the labour movement confronts the effects of the crisis, fights to preserve past gains, and strives to shore up its organizational and political power.

All Canadian workers, both public and private, are being hammered by the economic crisis. Public sector workers may have been somewhat shielded from the first effects of the recession. This is certainly true in terms of employment (which has continued to expand in the public sector, in contrast to massive job losses in private businesses), pensions (where most public sector workers still enjoy defined benefit plans, a benefit which is under siege in the private sector), and a few other areas. But this will change, and soon. Public sector employers will inevitably use looming deficits as the excuse to attack collective agreements and dismantle workers' rights that have taken decades to establish. The anti-concessions struggles by civic workers in Windsor and Toronto are clearly just the beginning of more vicious fights to come, as deficits swell and opportunistic politicians try to turn public frustration against public sector unions.

Fewer good jobs in the private sector (in manufacturing and other higherwage sectors) mean fewer tax dollars. That puts increased pressure on the job security of public sector workers and the quality of the services that they are able to. provide. So public sector workers have a direct interest in the preservation of well-paying industries in the private sector. In other words, public sector workers will not be able to remain in a protected zone. In their own interests, they will have to engage directly in the economic struggles of their brothers and sisters in the private sector.

This need for all unions to work together was well put by Paul Moist, National President of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, when he told a recent caw conference that "the labour movement cannot be split; no Canadian Labour Congress affiliate can afford to isolate itself from the rest of the movement. Your support for Medicare and other public services is critical. Our support for good manufacturing jobs is also critical."

As the economic crisis unfolded and trade unionists recognized the severity of the economic and political threats facing our movement, there have been positive signs of improved cooperation between public and private sector union leaders. Paul Moist has spoken to conventions of the caw, the Communications, Energy, and Paperworkers Union (CEP) and others. In turn, Ken Lewenza, caw president, has spoken at the CUPE Ontario convention and is slated in the fall of 2009 to speak to the CUPE National Convention. In this modest way, each union becomes more aware of the issues facing other unions. While this is a healthy development at the leadership level, much more emphasis needs to be placed on building solidarity, shared activity, and exchange at the local level. …

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