VANCOUVER – CUPE 2278 screened the film “We Are Wisconsin” followed by a panel discussion at UBC on March 10. The inspiring film documents the 2011 events in Madison, Wisconsin when a newly elected Republican Governor tried to wipe out collective bargaining rights for public employees.
The film was introduced by CUPE 2278 Executive Member Molly Campbell, who grew up in Wisconsin and lived in Madison for eight years before moving to Vancouver to start grad school at UBC. When she went home for reading week in 2011, her vacation turned into a week of protesting at the State Capitol. Campbell joined her friends and other Teaching Assistants who made valentines of protest to deliver to the Governor. Within days tens of thousands of people had joined the grass roots protest. Within a week that number had swelled to 100,000.
“This was incredible to see, especially in a town with a population of 200,000,” said Campbell.
Campbell told the audience that although the film was about Wisconsin, it’s relevant here as well.
“Wisconsin is the land of beer, cheese, and football. But it’s also a place with a strong history of labour rights,” said Campbell. “If this can happen there, it can happen anywhere.”
CUPE 2278 President Trish Everett introduced the panelists and got discussion started by asking them to respond to the film.
Panelists were Tania Jarzebiak, CUPE BC legislative coordinator who went to Wisconsin during the protest; Vancouver District Labour Council President Joey Hartman; and Brett Matthews, a lawyer with Hastings Labour Law Office in Vancouver.
Jarzebiak noted that not everything was covered in the film. She said that businesses had been incredibly supportive of public sector workers and that private sector unions, who weren’t covered by the Bill, “were there in droves.” Jarzebiak also pointed out that during the four-week process no violent incidents or arrests had occurred.
“After the 150,000 rally people even cleaned up,” said Jarzebiak. “It was pretty impressive and moving.”
Lawyer Brett Matthews talked about the history of collective bargaining and what’s happening in the U.S. today. He noted that union rights are under attack legislatively (Right to Work laws that allow members to opt out of paying union dues); collective agreements that strip out rights (in B.C. the government is trying to take away teachers’ ability to negotiate class size); and by limiting who can strike through essential services.
“It’s troubling when you hear people like the Koch brothers talking about the free market there’s a hatred of regulations, except when it comes to unions,” noted Matthews.
Jarzebiak reminded the audience about the over two hundred pieces of legislation passed in Canada limiting workers’ rights. About half of those were legislating workers on legal strike back to work.
Joey Hartman talked about how regulations attempt to weaken unions by separating members from their union and silencing our collective voice. She said that now all the cards are in the hands of the employer and the idea of balance is a falsehood. Unions are required to take a strike vote for any job action – even a five-minute study session.
Hartman noted that the B.C. government contracted out 8,000 HEU positions on 20-minute notice and that two years ago teachers were threatened with $22 million in fines per day. But there are some encouraging signs: strikes and job action by fast food workers, Conservatives lost all three by-elections, and the Canadian Labour Congress “Fairness Works” campaign.
“Unions need to be vigilant and take action,” Hartman said. “We are working on behalf of all of our members and our community at large.”
Further discussion focused on court rulings and labour rights, how unions can be more effective, how we take having conversations to the next level, and the roles of independent media and social media.
The Local served pizza at the conclusion of the event. In the film people from all over the world had called in to buy pizza for protesters from a pizza place across from the Capitol. (The world was truly watching.) Protesters then recycled pizza boxes into signs and put them up throughout the legislature.
“The parallels between Wisconsin and B.C. are clear,” says CUPE 2278 president Trish Everett. “Free and fair collective bargaining in B.C. has been eroded by years of provincial mandates that limit our ability to bargain freely and openly with our employer.”