Newfoundland public sector on strike since April 1

Government demands concessions as media prepare to demonise workers' "uncaring unconcern" for "the public"
Charles Spurr

(Shunpiking Online) 7 April 2004 -- In the largest such mass action in its history, Newfoundland's 20,000 public sector workers went out on strike April 1st.

NFLD public sector strike ... Nfld public sector strike (April 1 2004)

Up until negotiations ended March 31st, the main union, the Newfoundland Association of Public 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 With the failure to reach a new agreement, acceptance of the wage-freeze concession was withdrawn.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 onConfederation 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of government departments are housed), have set up dozens of pickets at all the main government services depots, and withdrawn non-medical staff from hospitals.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 absolutely just in the eyes of 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 five per cent per year for two more years, or eight percent for three 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.

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, NS, 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, Nfld public sector strike (April 1 2004)etc." The Telegram was in full frenzy, inciting mass hysteria, editorialising 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", 2 April, 2004). The lurid and seamy propaganda demonising 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", that 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), and that has been "consulted" by the U.S. Homeland Security department about "further professionalising" airport security, and by the Defense Department about the contracting of mercenaries for U.S. occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The premier himself has personally thrown down the gauntlet at 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 with no union connections. In full "independent entrepreneur" mode, and pretending the workers have no organisation 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'."

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 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 organise, 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 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 "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!

  Copyright 2004, The New Media Services Inc. The views expressed herein are the writers' own and do not necessarily reflect those of shunpiking magazine or New Media Publications.