Custodial and Maintenance Workers
Strike Against Contracting Out!
A nine week strike in Calgary by custodial and maintenance workers in the Catholic Schools in this Southern Alberta city proved that the provincial governments agenda to privatize education services is alive and well despite the recent victory of CUPE Local 474, Edmonton Public School custodial workers in gaining a five year no contracting out clause in their collective agreement.
This strike was not over wages but over the fact that the Catholic School Board and its allies in the Alberta School Boards Association (ASBA) were carrying out the governments agenda of attempting to contract out CUPE Local 520's jobs. The Catholic Board used a professional negotiator Mac McDonald, a hired gun from ASBA, to push its contracting out agenda against the union.
This protracted strike saw the union fight back by appealing to Catholic social justice resolutions passed by the Pope as well as by the Conference of Canadian Bishops denouncing contracting out. It further saw the local appeal to the newly appointed Bishop of Calgary; F.B. Henry, to intercede, which he did, on their behalf. The Bishop-Elect of the Calgary Diocese, F.B. Henry, sent a letter to the union and the Board stating that contracting out violates the Catholic teaching of fair treatment of workers. He states that "contracting out offends seriously against Catholic social principles".
CUPE Local 474 in Edmonton, organized support for Local 520. They donated $2000 per week to help supplement strike pay for the rank and file members, as well as providing picket line tape (modeled on police tape, see picture above) and organizing two protest rallies at ASBA's headquarters in Edmonton. Local 474 has been in the forefront of the fight back against contracting out custodial services in public education across North America. The local saw the Calgary strike as their battle as well.
Local 520 went into the strike with a no contracting out clause that they had won five years ago. As a result of the strike they gained wage increases but saw their no contracting out clause watered down into a memorandum of agreement, one that could allow limited contracting out in the future. Even with the success of CUPE Local 474's pilot project on contracting out and their unprecedented no contracting out five year bridging clause which they won in October of 1997, it is clear that the privatization of custodial and maintenance workers is still the agenda of the government and its allies in school boards across this province.
Eugene Plawiuk, April 1998
Below is an article from the first week of the strike by Neil Fettes, of Red & Black Notes, in Calgary.
Catholic Caretakers Walk the Line
On Friday, January 16 at 11:00 a.m. custodial workers at schools in the Calgary Roman Catholic School System began a legal strike. Two hundred and seventy members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) local 520 struck over the issue of contracting out services. An hour after the strike began three hundred CUPE members and their supporters braved cold temperatures for a noisy rally outside the school board's offices in downtown Calgary. At the rally representatives from local 520, as well as other CUPE locals, Alberta Teachers Association (ATA) local 55, Calgary & District Labour Council and the President of the Alberta Federation of Labour addressed the boisterous crowd with messages of solidarity.
At issue in the strike is the contracting out of services. At present the custodians' contract includes a "no contracting out clause" which local 520 wants included in the new contract and the school board wants removed. Despite the fact that Edmonton Public Schools recently agreed to such a demand from its workers and studies have shown that it is less cost-effective to hire contract labour the school board has refused to budge on the issue. School Board chair Ted Sullivan has argued that the school board has no plans to employ contract labour, but insists the Board needs the "flexibility" the removal of the clause would give them. The Board's commitment to not using contract workers has already been demonstrated by their decision to hire scabs to replace the striking workers. Nevertheless the board's view of its new employees would seem to be revealed by the fact that they have yet to give them keys to open and close the schools. Principals must do this job.
Efforts to avoid a strike failed after the board refused to change their position. A meeting scheduled between the union and the Calgary Catholic Bishop Paul O'Byrne to try and resolve the issue a few days before the strike was cancelled due to "scheduling problems." Ironically for a school board based on "Christian" principles Calgary Catholic is unable to claim, at least in this instance that, "God is on our side." The Conference of Catholic Bishops has argued that employers ought not to exploit unionized workers by contracting out their jobs. When CUPE spokespersons cited these remarks, last year school trustees complained that the union was unnecessarily polarizing the debate by bringing God into it!
Many parents and students support the striking workers. That support should not remain passive. Yet there are other areas from which pressure could be applied. At the Friday rally, representatives from ATA local 55, which represents Catholic teachers, and the Support Staff Association, spoke to the crowd promising solidarity, but at present both of these organizations are continuing to work in struck buildings. Mike O'Brien of local 55 announced several days earlier that teachers would continue to work, because "We're legally obliged to teach and we intend to fulfill our obligations." He insisted though, that teachers would not do the jobs of striking workers. During the Edmonton dispute ATA President Bauni Mackay announced that in the event of a strike, teachers there would probably cross picket lines. When Calgary Public Teachers were in a work to rule and faced the possibility of a strike they asked for support from other sectors and for the most part received it. Solidarity is a two-way street and teachers need to support CUPE workers beyond messages of solidarity.
An aggressive campaign needs to be waged against the school board by striking workers and their supporters in all sectors. Direct action in supporting custodians is urgently needed. Walk outs and other solidarity by students and staff, teaching and otherwise would demonstrate to the school board the strength and power of support behind the workers.
January 17, 1998
The opinions produced in this article are those of the author, who works, teaches and produces Red & Black Notes in Calgary.
Page design © Copyright 1997 Eugene W. Plawiuk.
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