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Rally Report: Sudbury Laundry Workers Rally, Tuesday, October 18, 2016 by Rachael Charbonneau (Workers Power-Sudbury)

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.

Rally Report: Sudbury Laundry Workers Rally, Tuesday, October 18, 2016
by Rachael Charbonneau (Workers Power-Sudbury)

We interviewed a laundry worker who works at Sudbury Hospital Services (SHS) in May 2015 for Workers Struggle. You can read that interview here.

When we arrived at the laundry workers rally yesterday, supporters were gathering on the road that leads up to SHS. At 11:30 am, laundry workers started to come out of their plant.  Even though the rally was planned around the workers’ lunch break, this was the most powerful moment of the rally. In hindsight, I wish we would have cheered as the workers emerged, but as a group, we supporters didn’t seem to have any gumption yet. I guess that’s a lesson for next time. I was carrying a sign that read: CUT THE FAT WHERE IT’S AT: THE TOP! (It’s visible in the picture.) The back of my sign read: SUPPORT OUR LAUNDRY WORKERS! I faced the workers as they were exiting the plant and started asking them what they thought of my sign. Many of the workers smiled, and a few commented, “Right on!” and “Yeah!”

We talked with the workers a little as we walked down the road a short way to the first intersection away from the laundry plant but still within the hospital complex. The laundry workers were handed Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) signs at this intersection and I wondered if the workers had been engaged in making them. There was no other visible union presence there to support the rally. The media was there in full force, talking to officials representing the union, but not the workers themselves. This is shameful. Unions are their workers, not their officials.

The rally was quickly settled into uninspired speeches from CUPE officials. These officials were pushing a hard protectionist line by setting a competitive regionalist narrative pitting northern Ontario workers against southern Ontario workers. This is shameful practice. How can these professional organizers still be getting away with this anti-worker bullshit? In this struggle, our enemy is management. Management is the one who decided to throw away the laundry workers as though they’re disposable humans. The workers in Hamilton had nothing to do with making this layoff happen – Health Sciences North (HSN) management did!

When CUPE officials did get around to shaming management, they accused them of disloyalty. This too is a shame. Management isn’t loyal to anyone except themselves and the bottom line! There is no such thing as management loyalty! Shame on CUPE for suggesting otherwise! We should be outraged by management’s reckless cuts – not feeling betrayed or hurt. We understand our enemy better than this.

CUPE officials also spent a lot of time shaming Glenn Thibeault for not protecting laundry workers’ jobs, as if Glenn Thibeault had anything to do with management’s decision. This is no strategy! Workers’ power resides in their relationship to production, their collectivity and unity, not with politicians. Has Glenn Thibeault ever once stuck his neck out for any group of workers? CUPE is stalling for time by diverting workers into dead ends and doing nothing to build worker power in the very short amount of time these workers have left to do so. In fact, the worker we interviewed last May identified stalling as one of CUPE officials’ favourite tactics for disorganizing workers. “If we’re not stalled by our employer, we’re stalled by our union.” This too, is an unacceptable shame.  

At one point, in between posturing speeches, the president of the local, who was introducing the speakers, hesitated because she seemed unsure who was speaking next. I asked the workers around me if any of them wanted to speak because I thought it would be worth struggling for, but none of them wanted to. I can’t really blame them; they certainly hadn’t been prepared in advance to speak and public speaking takes practice to build confidence. That’s why these events need a lot of planning and preparation to be successful. Officials dropping in for a quick photo op doesn’t help workers build the skills they need to fight back and build worker power.

After yet another speech, and another hesitation of what to do next, the president tentatively asked if any workers wanted to speak. Any good organizer knows that workers should have been prepared in advance for this, not left to spontaneity. The rally was in desperate need of some worker focus, but no one was coming forward. We had been told by the president that there are many single mothers who work at the plant. How powerful could it have been to hear from well prepared single mothers who are getting ready to fight back? (In the interview we did, the laundry worker expressed some confidence issues with the local leadership, and that may have been a factor when these workers wouldn’t come forward.) Not wanting the workers to be defeated at their own rally, and wanting to encourage them, I shouted, “Let’s hear from the workers!” At this point a worker came forward. She expressed herself very well for not having prepared. She told us that her husband is unemployed, and that now she will be too. She declared that “HSN is taking away my life.” And she’s right: class struggle is the struggle for existence. We all cheered for her courage to speak. The president asked if any more workers would like to come forward. I shouted, “Go workers go,” but no more workers were willing to come forward. This was a particularly sad moment because these workers have nothing to lose now and everything to gain. Their jobs are gone at the end of March 2017. Maybe they’re still in shock, but if they want to keep their jobs, they’re going to have to stand up, stick together, and fight like hell with on the job action, not passive dependence on union officials and politicians. In an effort to ease the awkwardness of the workers’ reluctance to speak up, a retiree and former local president came forward. She shouted, “What the hell is going on?” questioning the ruthlessness management has engaged in by breaking their contract with laundry workers on site. This was more on point than any of the officials.

In the interview we did last year, the laundry worker explained that they had suffered a major layoff in 2013 that reduced their ranks by half, from 120 to 60. In October 2016, there are 36 workers left and management is moving in for the kill. Management believes they’ve diminished and weakened this particular group of workers sufficiently to not elicit a struggle from the workers and community. That’s why CUPE official’s sincerity is suspect: where was their struggle for these jobs while these workers were being decimated?

In this same interview, we presented some questions for evaluating whether or not our unions are still workers’ organizations: “Do workers control and run it? Does it defend and fight for workers’ interests? Is it combative against capitalists and bosses? Or does the union/organization in question prefer to restrain and disorganize workers?” CUPE officials fail this political assessment. CUPE is not combative against the bosses, confines the struggle to what is acceptable to the employer, practices dependence on politicians and pits workers against each other. This strategy does not have what it takes to save the laundry workers’ jobs. Sudbury and Toronto CUPE officials talking tough at a rally is just that: talk. The fact is CUPE has been unsuccessful in stopping the slow death for laundry workers in Sudbury.

But my critique of CUPE officials’ refusal to help workers fight back effectively, although lengthier, is secondary to my critique of HSN management. A quick google search reveals that the Sunshine List, a disclosure of public officials making more than $100,000/year, is expanding every year at HSN, while workers get cut. In 2013, the year SHS got cut by half, HSN boasted 131 executives on the Sunshine List. In 2014, that number ballooned to 179. In 2015, the number grew to 218. Their salary increases correspond to the cuts workers are facing. The Sunshine List at HSN has expanded every year of the first three years of a five year provincial funding freeze. HSN CEO, Denis Roy, made over $360,000 in 2015. Vice-President, Chris Bourdon, made over $380,000 (don’t tell the CEO) – both up from previous years. These decisions are clear and calculated moves that sacrifice workers and patients. But workers can make HSN management accountable by organizing in their own interests, by building and relying on their own strength. There’s no point in holding anything back now. There’s nothing left to lose. There’s no other choice but to fight back.


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