It's been three weeks now since the union representing custodians and tradespeople at Wilfrid Laurier University accepted a deal to end their strike and go back to work. Unfortunately, the university got what it wanted: they bullied the union into accepting contract language that allows them to contract out their work whenever a unionized position is vacated. It was not the outcome the labour movement wanted, but there are some important lessons we can take from this experience.
First, the union agreed to the bad deal because a large percentage of their own members were crossing the picket line during the strike and made it clear to the union leadership that they didn't care enough about the people who will do their jobs in the future to make some sacrifices and join the strike. We can blame the scabs all we like, but ultimately this is a symptom of a deeper malaise in our union movement. We are not talking enough to our own members about the benefits of union membership, and about the important role of unions of not just improving working conditions for their own members, but of raising the standards for ALL working people. CUPE 926 got caught with their organizing pants down, and the university took advantage of their lack of solidarity among their own membership. I'm not casting blame here: most honest union leaders would admit that it could happen in their own union, too. We have much work to do to engage our own members!
Second, the university lost the public relations battle on this issue. Most reporting in the mainstream media did a good job of portraying the real issue at stake in the strike: the university's language about needing better "productivity" out of their custodial services was shown for what it really was: an effort to save money by eliminating good jobs and a shameful willingness to pay poverty wages to get its work done. Who would have thought Record columnist Luisa d'Amato would write a column headlined "If a university won't pay a living wage, who will?" This is no doubt due to the successful organizing work of the $15 and Fairness campaign and the living wage campaign, for making precarious work an issue that the public understands and sympathizes with. The university's reputation took a beating in this strike: what remains to be seen is if we can use that success to press it into being a better employer in the future.
Lastly, let's celebrate the broader solidarity that this issue demonstrated across the union movement. The Waterloo Regional Labour Council has been talking about the contracting out issue at WLU since last December (see here, here, here, here, and here), and helped promote two rallies to its supporters in July. The first of those two July rallies started at 7am on a weekday morning, and over 150 showed up! The rally on the last day of the strike, July 15th, had an even better turnout. Both events were attended by dozens of members of other unions - including ETFO, IATSE, UFCW, USW, OSSTF, OPSEU, OECTA, Unifor, and SEIU. The public understood this issue, and the unions in Waterloo Region - especially those who have been participating in the Labour Council - moved from understanding and support to action. We should be proud of that.
Let's take these lessons into consideration as we continue our just struggle to both preserve good jobs and fight for better employment and labour laws that improve the lives of all. That's what the labour movement is all about, after all.