Public sector workers building power in tough times
Joe Curnow is a professor in the faculty of education at the University of Manitoba, a long-time community organizer, and a member of the organizing and communications team for the University of Manitoba Faculty Association (UMFA). Scott Neigh interviews her about UMFA’s recent strike, in which an organizing orientation allowed the union to accomplish quite a lot despite very challenging circumstances, and about the lessons it holds for other public sector unions.
These days, the broader public sector in Canada is facing an ongoing, slow-motion crisis in the form of incremental denial of adequate resources, forced piecemeal privatization and subordination to market forces, and the perpetual looming possibility of more overt and vicious attacks from hostile governments. So while there are local specificities to what UMFA had to face in its recent strike, the broad features are relevant to what a lot of other workers in a lot of other contexts are dealing with.
The specificities in Manitoba include an aggressive Conservative provincial government that has used legislation – the so-called Public Sector Sustainability Act (PSSA) – and behind-the-scenes mandates to public sector employers to prevent wage increases. For UMFA, the context also included a round of wage-only bargaining in 2020 in which COVID and massive public health restrictions on collective action contributed to a narrow vote to accept a deal that many members were very unhappy with.
With the full contract coming up for bargaining in 2021, UMFA was deeply divided and in disarray. Both an internal election and decisions about the bargaining platform became deeply contentious. Some members wanted to put money into hiring external bargaining and media relations professionals. But a majority, including Curnow, thought that rather than seeking more polished ways to ask for a better deal, they should get serious about organizing and building power among the members in order to be more able to demand one.
So UMFA put a great deal of work, long before the possibility of a strike loomed, into building the strength of the union on the shop floor in a unit-by-unit way. Around 30 active members participated in a well-known training for building organizing capacity, Jane Mcalevey’s “Organizing for Power”. UMFA also hired an organizer, who in turn built capacity to do that work among worker-leaders, including lots of one-on-one meetings and various other approaches for giving them lots of support to develop their skills and confidence to go back to their departments and organize. They also put a lot of work into talking with members, to build a picture of what they wanted and what they were willing to fight for. In addition – and this was Curnow’s main focus – UMFA began building power oriented outwards, towards the community and the formal political realm. This was part of a strategic decision to target the provincial government’s ongoing interference in the bargaining process.
This externally focused work started from the deceptively simple approach of getting as many members as possible to meet with their MLAs to present some pretty easy and simple demands. Not only did this start a process of building relations of accountability between workers and politicians, but it also served as an important context in which members who had never done anything like this before developed their capacities to take action and politicized their understandings of their situation, which in turn opened possibilities for other kinds of action.
This politicization began even prior to the MLA meetings, through the preparation sessions that Curnow led, where workers had a chance to “talk about the ways that the government mandate and interference in our workplaces was impacting them.” Wages were a prime concern for workers, after many consecutive years of no or tiny increases. But these conversations were the first time that workers started to realize that the relatively uncompetitive wages at U of M had created a “widespread recruitment and retention crisis” – meaning the university was having trouble recruiting and retaining faculty – across many different departments. This was an important issue to present to elected officials, Curnow said, “but it was really even more important for our members to hear that, and to hear that their experience was not isolated. … It really collectivized the experience and politicized it.” This crisis, and its broader implications for postsecondary education in Manitoba, became a central part of the union’s messaging.
The strike began in early November 2021. There was both conventional picketing at the university and also what they called virtual picketing, which mobilized workers to take other kinds of actions from their own homes – contacting politicians, social media work, reaching out individually to friends and family, and other kinds of political work made possible by online tools. In line with the choice to target the province, there was also a picket at the legislature every day, and UMFA members showed up to protest at pretty much every public event held by Manitoba’s then-new premier. They also did door-to-door canvassing in Conservative ridings, had a prolific and creative social media and meme game, and worked with a group of supportive students on theatrical, disruptive, and direct actions of various kinds.
The strike lasted for five weeks, and was resolved by an agreement to go to binding arbitration. That is not normally the kind of outcome that unions prefer, but in this instance it was binding arbitration that was explicitly instructed to ignore the province’s mandate to freeze wages. And while this was in no way a decisive victory for the union, Curnow said there were “a lot of significant things, small wins, that came out of the strike.” This included substantial wage gains for UMFA’s lowest paid members, significant progress in terms of building the union’s capacity and political position, and pushing the province to make quiet but real concessions that it didn’t want to make. In other words, despite the disarray the union had been in and the aggressive hostility from the province, an organizing orientation was able to accomplish a lot. For Curnow, that is the key lesson from the strike – that even in difficult conditions, an ongoing commitment to putting time and energy into developing a membership that is empowered and active is a key way for unions to build strength, defend past victories, and even make some gains.
Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out our website here. You can also follow us on Facebook or Twitter, or contact firstname.lastname@example.org to join our weekly email update list.
Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.
Image: Wikimedia / Sancho McCann
Theme music: “It Is the Hour (Get Up)” by Snowflake, via CCMixter