As the days grow shorter, the Labour Day weekend offers an opportunity to gather around the barbecue again with friends and family before we get into the important work ahead of us this fall.
This Labour Day, as I think about the current state of the public services and institutions at the heart of our society and look ahead to our We Own It! campaign this fall, I find my mind turning to the old miners’ song: “Which Side Are You On?”
The song came out of the struggles of mine workers in the 1930s. And yet, 80 years later, as I look at all the attacks on the public sector, it seems just as relevant in 2016.
There are the obvious threats: the Liberals’ continued efforts to sell Hydro One against the wishes of more than 80 per cent of Ontarians, or the P3 projects that continue to funnel billions in public dollars into the pockets of corporate donors.
But there are also less-obvious examples that are just as dangerous to the services we rely on.
We see this in the colleges, where Deb Matthews and Colleges Ontario are setting a chilling precedent for the privatization of public education. Together they are handing over first year business school to McDonald’s, an organization that absolutely no one should be taking lessons from on business ethics.
We see the continued privatization of liquor sales, despite the known costs to the public that come from the increased availability of alcohol. We only need to look at provinces like BC that are farther down the privatization path to see the alcohol-related deaths, social harms and associated costs coming our way.
We see the case of developmental services – where four years of work led to the Ontario Ombudsman’s report on the province’s “deeply flawed” developmental services system. Ombudsman Dubé denounced, in particular, the practice of placing adults with developmental disabilities in hospitals and jails – something that contributes to the crisis in corrections, and which OPSEU has condemned for years without a response from the government.
And we see the mental health sector, where workers in institutions built by Public-Private Partnerships (P3s) are paying the price of insufficient safety measures, in places like the Waypoint Centre for Mental Health Care. Corners cut to increase the profits of the private companies that built it are leading to injuries to workers, and putting the safety of patients at risk.
And yet we’re also seeing a growing number of people across the province pushing back against this privatization agenda.
We see it in the case of Hydro One, where thousands of members of the public are joining groups like Hydro One Not For Sale and Keep Hydro Public to demand that the government stop the sale. These groups are mobilizing people – many of whom have never taken to the streets before – and building support from hundreds of municipal councils in their fight to save this crucial public service.
We see more of this pushback in the public consultations on the Changing Workplaces Review, where the summary of recommendations shows that many Ontarians are tired of a work landscape that increasingly forces people into precarious work, while leaving more and more working folks struggling to provide for their families.
And we see this in the case of our fellow workers who belong to the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW), who have fought hard against Canada Post management’s austerity agenda and continue to fight to preserve pensions for all workers, including those just starting out in their careers.
It is in these places where people stand together against the government’s privatization agenda that we see the strength of solidarity. That willingness to stand together, to sacrifice together, and to fight for one another is what will be the game-changer here. Solidarity has always been, and will always be, the true strength of working people everywhere. And it is a strength that no amount of money or political power can match.
In Ontario, these two sides are at work at the same time – one pushing a privatization agenda that threatens the public sector we built together, and the other building strength through solidarity to increasingly resist this agenda. As the tensions grow, the question of the song rings true as a challenge to us all: Which side are you on?
This fall, our union will begin to weave those strands of solidarity and resistance together through our We Own It! campaign. As we roll this out across Ontario, calling for solidarity from working people in every corner of the province, we’ll be asking all Ontarians to look at these two sides and the futures they offer for Ontario – one a world where only those with money get the services they want, and the other a world where every person gets the services they need.
And we’ll ask them the miners’ question: Which side are you on?
Warren (Smokey) Thomas
President, Ontario Public Service Employees Union