The Newfoundland public sector strike

Approximately 300 NAPE and CUPE members marched through Grand Falls-Windsor on April 6, 2004.

Approximately 300 NAPE and CUPE members marched through Grand Falls-Windsor on April 6, 2004.

Government demands concessions as media prepare to demonize workers’ “uncaring unconcern” for “the public”

By TONY SEED and GARY ZATZMAN*

(April 7, 2004) – IN THE LARGEST such mass action in its history, Newfoundland’s 20,000 public sector workers went out on strike April 1. Up until negotiations ended March 31, the main union, the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees (NAPE), supported by a sister public-sector union the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), had been seeking a four-year contract incorporating a wage freeze for the first two years, followed by four three-per-cent increases in each April and October of the last two years. With the failure to reach a new agreement, acceptance of the wage-freeze concession was withdrawn.

On April 1, over 4,000 workers marched on Confederation Building. Union members are demonstrating daily outside the Confederation Building (where the provincial legislature and head offices of government departments are housed), have set up dozens of pickets at all the main government services depots, and withdrawn non-medical staff from hospitals.

The union leadership earlier won a 91-per-cent strike mandate from the membership. Even the blatantly anti-strike media admitted the strike enjoyed a 75-per-cent level of support among all sections of the province’s population. Clearly this strike is seen to be very just by public opinion inside and beyond the unions. It is “shocking” only to the province’s premier, Danny Williams, and diehard supporters of the government’s line, that the union is not ordering a vote on either of the government’s contract offers. These are both premised on an initial two-year wage freeze, followed by either 5 per cent per year for two more years.

The breaking of the social contract with the public sectors workers is not unique in Canada. Industrial and public sector workers are under fire in every province. Capitalists have unleashed an anti-labour offensive to increase their claim on the social product. Part of the anti-labour offensive is ideological and takes place in the mass media. The hyperbolic, overheated atmosphere of hysteria from the government and the media went into high gear the moment the workers established picket lines.

As a blackmail pressure against its own workers, the government brought down its budget two days before the strike deadline, in which it announced it planned to eliminate up to 1,000 positions across the public sector this year, and up to 6,000 positions over the next four years. In addition, the Premier spoke of laying off approximately 2,000 workers this summer. Retirees are also under attack. The government told retirees that it intended to renege on its commitment to contribute one per cent to the pension plan to help fund indexing for provincial government retirees over the age of 65.

Rainy weather didn't dampen the spirits of workers in central Newfoundland.

Rainy weather didn’t dampen the spirits of workers in central Newfoundland.

By the second day of the strike, the province’s largest-circulation newspaper, The Telegram — part of the giant Transcontinental monopoly which laid off 100 workers in Kentville and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, where it shut down two printing plants on March 26 — printed a prominent notice declaring that it would turn over its pages to anti-strike stories. “Telegram reporter Barb Sweet would like to hear from anyone who has been impacted by the province’s public sector strike in any way through such things as delays in health-care service, cancelled surgeries, cancelled or delayed exams, transportation problems, etc.” The Telegram was in full frenzy, inciting mass hysteria, editorializing that “horrible things are about to happen … Someone may die because services are unavailable, delayed or diminished…” It advised people against standing for what is just and opposing what is unjust and instead do “whatever you can to make sure [horrible things] don’t happen to you, and do your best to make sure you don’t add to the problems that are clearly on the way.” (“Hoping the worst doesn’t happen,” April 2, 2004).

The lurid and seamy propaganda demonizing the workers’ “uncaring unconcern” for the fate of “the public” began to churn. The claims of the government employees are depicted in dark, negative terms as a drain on the economy and an impediment to future growth and prosperity.

Just what have the media sniffed out? The Premier they dubbed “Danny Millions” relishes his buccaneer image as “King of Cable” (television) in the province. He has no shame about owning shares in such fellow buccaneering operations as Wackenhut. This is the private security outfit in the U.S. that followed the path opened up by the notorious Pinkerton Agency in supplying giant multinationals with labour spies and strikebreaking “replacement workers.” It also runs private prisons for profit in several states (in the mid-1990s it briefly entertained the possibility of operating a chain of them for the Harris government in Ontario). It has also been “consulted” by the U.S. Homeland Security Department about “further professionalizing” airport security, and by the Defence Department about the contracting of mercenaries for U.S. occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Premier himself has personally thrown down the gauntlet to provoke the working class. For this Premier, and for the media who have uttered not a peep about these unsavoury connections, there is no shame about manipulating information in order to paint Newfoundland government employees as “terrorist” over an incident in which, two days before the strike and hours after the delivery of the proposed budget, his son was beaten up outside a bar by an individual who he immediately declared had a union connection. In full “independent entrepreneur” mode, and pretending the workers have no organization of their own, the Premier appeared on Day One of the strike at one picket line, presenting directly to the workers various negotiation “nuances,” percentage promises and other arithmetic sleight-of-hand that ‘your leaders failed to explain’.”

NAPE Local 6206 on their picket line outside the Dr. Leonard A. Miller Centre in St. John's.

NAPE Local 6206 on their picket line outside the Dr. Leonard A. Miller Centre in St. John’s.

The budget with no money and the strike with no solution unfolded on the 55th anniversary of Newfoundland’s entry into Confederation, the “great salvation” (J.R. Smallwood’s phrase) with no future. The rich and their system, represented by the government and the media, have no solutions except to take more and more out of the economy and the workers’ hides for redistribution amongst their class. The Williams script is as tiresome and predictable in its outcome as all that preceded it: the saga of Smallwood in which the working people could play mute walk-ons but suffer police billy-clubs and jail for daring to organize, the morass of corruption under Frank Moores, the oil-soaked pie-in-the-sky promises of Brian Peckford, the tale of the turbot starring Tobin the tout followed by the outbreak of utter chaos in provincial finance and its grim aftermath of Roger Grimes’ massive social spending cuts. No Newfoundland worker is in any doubt as to whether those arithmetic lessons at the picket line will address how many thousands of Newfoundlanders should be packing for Alberta or elsewhere in search of a livelihood as yet another premier gangster mounts the stage to further loot the people’s land, labour and resources on behalf of multinational corporations, Canadian and foreign.

This strike struggle is a moment of reality not to be found anywhere on any television channel, including Premier Williams’ cable networks. Like the definition supplied by a Bay Bulls fisherman of “the upper crust” as “a bunch of crumbs held together by dough,” this reality is one that is all too familiar among the working people. What has broken out in Newfoundland is a moment in the class struggle that leaves no room for anyone to be neutral. The workers are standing fast because they sense, correctly, that concessions are not solutions!

Source: Shunpiking Online, http://www.shunpiking.com, April 7, 2004. Please note that the source named Charles Spurr as the author. This was incorrect.

* * *

Concessions, concessions, concessions: That’s what’s at stake

– Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees (NAPE), April 4, 2004 –

On March 31, NAPE’s negotiating teams rejected the premier’s offer based on the following:

Four concessions still on table

Pensions The premier refused to guarantee pension premiums wouldn’t go up and pension benefits wouldn’t go down. He also won’t guarantee not to roll the other provincial government pension plans in with ours. All the other plans are in even worse shape.

Sick leave The premier wants to cut sick leave benefits in half for future employees, creating a two-tiered benefit. What benefit would he want to cut in the next round of negotiations?

Implementation of new classification system Our existing contracts include government’s commitment to implement a new classification system on April 1, 2004, something NAPE and CUPE negotiated in 2001. The unions agreed to a four-year delay. That wasn’t enough for this government. They want to put a cap — a maximum dollar amount — on something that is intended to ensure individual public sector workers are paid appropriately for their responsibilities. Government also wants to reduce negotiated wage increases by whatever is paid out under the new classification system.

School board hours of work This government wouldn’t agree to honour the Warren and Young reports on school board workers’ hours of work — reports that settled a nine-week strike in 2001.

No compassion for laid off workers

According to the provincial budget, some 400 NAPE and CUPE members will be laid off this year, and we have reason to believe that number might not include layoffs in health care. We tried to negotiate a voluntary workforce reduction program, a much more humane approach to cutting jobs. This was one of a handful of issues left on the table on March 31.

Government trying to provoke fight between NAPE and CUPE

The provincial budget announced that eleven school boards will be reduced to five this year. It also announced that the number of health care corporations will be slashed. Both NAPE and CUPE asked for recognition language in health care and school boards — NAPE members would continue to be NAPE members, and CUPE members would continue to be CUPE members. Government would not agree, preferring to turn the unions’ attention to fighting with each other rather than fighting for the workers we represent.

Strike votes said, “no concessions”

Our strike votes made it clear our members would not accept concessions, so regardless of what the monetary offer from government had been on March 31, we would not have had a contract. We gave government a deadline of midnight, Sunday, April 4 to accept our offer — no concessions, a two-year wage freeze, two 3% wage increases in the third year of the contract, and two 3% wage increases in the fourth year of the contract. If our members agree to a two-year wage freeze, government has to give something in return.

Let’s not repeat the ‘90s

In the 1990s, NAPE took a conciliatory approach to then Liberal premier Clyde Wells, and our members suffered for years. You took rollbacks, wages freezes, and wholesale job losses. Now we have another arrogant premier. A premier who during the election campaign said there’d be no job losses, yet his budget made it clear 400 NAPE and CUPE members, close to 300 teachers, and hundreds of managers will lose their jobs by the end of 2005. He told us what he needed to say to get elected, then went back on his word.

And what about his claim at NAPE’s 2001 Biennial Convention that he wouldn’t use the “extraordinary powers of the legislature, powers no other employer enjoys.” Yet he has already threatened to legislate NAPE and CUPE members back to work.

The premier has also claimed he “didn’t know” the province was in such bad financial state. Yet in March of 2004, Loyola Sullivan told the House of Assembly he knew the deficit was close to $750 million. The premier spent our money to have PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PWC) prepare a report on the province’s finances. He spent the money so that Tory hack Michael Gourley would give the premier something to beat the unions with. A report on provincial finances by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, commissioned by NAPE, puts the debt at much lower figures than the PWC report. But then, so does the budget finance minister Loyola Sullivan brought down. The fact is, the province is in hard shape, but it is not in the mess the Tories would have you believe it is in. We agreed to a two-year wage freeze. Now it’s time for the premier to do his share.

And what’s with the premier implying that NAPE or CUPE members had anything to do with beating up his son at a bar in St. John’s on budget night? But more important, where does he get off saying if a union member goes near his family or the family of one of his members, he’ll keep us out ‘til the cows come home. Only an egomaniac would punish 20,000 people for the actions of one person, a person who probably isn’t a NAPE or CUPE member. But what kind of egomaniac would deprive everybody in this province of public services to satisfy his very personal thirst for revenge? This is a man who doesn’t hesitate to abuse his power as premier.

Speaking about abusing his power, what’s with his negotiating with picketers on the picket line? Don’t say he doesn’t know any better. He found a few vulnerable members and misled them about what government was offering. If we didn’t have to negotiate a settlement with this man, we’d be charging him under the Labour Relations Act.

TML Daily, April 9, 2004 – No. 54

http://www.cpcml.ca/Tmld2004/D34054.htm#4

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