Workers fight the man
Strike like you’re Robin Hood
At midnight on Friday, Oct. 4, 5000 workers from seven Saskatchewan Crowns walked off the job following months of failed negotiations with the provincial government. According to Unifor, which represents employees from Sasktel, SaskPower, SaskEnergy, Sask Water, SecureTek, DirectWest and the Water Security Agency, workers are striking against a two-year wage freeze. Like many in Saskatchewan, Crown employees have been faced with increasing job precarity, the outsourcing of positions, and wages that haven’t kept pace with the ballooning cost of living. For comparison, Saskatchewan MLAs – those who represent the government on the other side of the bargaining table from Unifor, and who make a base salary of – at the very least– $96,000 per year – gave themselves a 2.3 per cent raise this year.
Although Unifor workers are striking for their own contract, Emily Leedham, a Winnipeg-based labour organizer and the host of Rank and File Radio Prairie, says that large-scale strikes like these can be opportunities for far greater changes than just getting a raise. Specifically, Leedham talked about “bargaining for the public good.” She said, “you put community benefit items on the bargaining table, so you’re not just bargaining for wages or working conditions, you’re saying ‘I want to be able to have more childcare spaces, more public transit for workers.’”
For examples, Leedham pointed to teachers in West Virginia who won wage increases not only for themselves, but for all public sector workers in that state, as well as the actions of Unifor itself in Oshawa, where a proposal was tabled earlier this year to nationalize that city’s General Motors plant and convert it into a factory for making electric vehicles.
“The stronger you have your union, the more ability you have to kind of throw your weight around and create the kind of economy that actually benefits workers,” Leedham said. But she added that since the 1970s, it’s been getting more and more difficult for workers in Canada to strike at all, let alone to bargain for the public good.
“There’s been legislation to handcuff workers’ ability to use the strike,” she said, pointing to the federal government’s move to undermine the Canadian Union of Postal Workers’ (CUPW) strike last winter by legislating them back to work. “It’s not only ‘can we strike for the common good, can we strike for community benefit agreements,’ it’s ‘can we strike, period?’”
Leedham pointed out that the West Virginia teachers’ strike, where the union won big for so many, was an illegal strike. When it comes to the limitations of legal job actions, she said, “Nobody’s going to create a law that makes it easy to overthrow them or makes it easy to shut down things for the benefit of workers as opposed to businesses or corporations.”
While Unifor workers say they’re buckling down for the long haul, Leedham said that ultimately, if workers want to challenge the system in a truly meaningful way, “they’re going to have to break the law to get a strike that really wins big.”