Rally Report: Laundry Workers Rally #2, November 2, 2016 at MPP’s Office
By Rachael Charbonneau (Workers Power-Sudbury)
The laundry workers’ second rally was better than their first in that workers improved their level of organization. Some workers, as well as officials, greeted and engaged supporters as we arrived. And workers spoke at this rally, and more importantly, they were prepared. They did well, but they didn’t stray from the union officials’ talking points: keep jobs local, northern Ontario workers vs. southern Ontario workers, and beg politicians to save them. So, union officials are still pushing for competition between the two groups of workers, and this political line is confusing and intimidating to workers who are angry at management for targeting them for termination. When you talk to laundry workers, they’re quite focussed on management, not on the workers in Hamilton. There’s a contradiction between the officials’ discourse and the workers’ understanding. It seems the workers understand who the enemy is in this struggle better than officials do. And this is precisely the kind of contradiction we see when different class interests are involved. The enemy is very clear for workers, not so clear for professionals. This struggle is between laundry workers and management, not between groups of workers. The union officials should be going after management exclusively, and we can make them do that if we’re organized autonomously.
I had arranged to meet a new contact at this rally (let’s call her Sally), and that happened as soon as we got there. I asked her what she thought of Health Sciences North (HSN) slashing the laundry service in half, and she said she didn’t even know about that. I relayed what another worker had told me, and she said, “Well, we don’t know what’s going on. That’s the problem.” So there’s an unevenness about the workers’ investigation and/or the rumour mill at this point, which worried me a little. I second-guessed reporting what the other worker had told me. But then I thought, no, these workers are doing their own investigation into what’s going on. The media isn’t helping them, and the union officials are not in the workplace and may be using non-worker channels for their information. Workers will be right about some things and wrong about some things, but they will figure things out, especially if as many of us as possible help them. As it turned out, it was less than an ideal time to meet. Sally seemed anxious to get back to her co-workers because more supporters were arriving and the rally was starting soon.
My sign for this rally read: POLITICIANS SERVE THE BOSSES WHILE WORKERS SUFFER LOSSES! The back read: UNITE TO BUILD WORKERS POWER!
The President of the laundry workers’ Local 2841, Gisele Dawson, began the rally by telling those gathered that union officials had a meeting with Glenn Thibeault, Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP) for Sudbury, on October 22. Glenn stated he would talk to HSN management and get back to them either later the following week or early last week. He didn’t. Gisele tried calling Glenn several times, but he didn’t return her calls. Eventually, Glenn’s assistant returned her call, relaying that HSN stated they have to sever their contract with Sudbury Hospital Services (SHS) because it’s too run down. Gisele hit back, “And they’re right, but you know what? One of our drivers has been to Mohawk, and guess what? It’s in worse shape than our plant!” She shouted at Glenn’s window – who never showed his face – that her members would come back again and again until he does the right thing and gets their jobs back or, failing that, gets them comparable jobs in Sudbury. She warned him that laundry workers would treat him accordingly at the next election. She then started one of several chants of “Do the right thing!” This was disappointing. Imagine if Glenn Thibeault was your boyfriend and he dumped you, making it clear he didn’t want to see you or talk to you. You wouldn’t keep calling him and coming around begging him to see you. You’d accept the reality and start to build and rely on your own strength. We can’t just keep begging Thibeault for these jobs back. He’s made his position clear. And as Phil Marsh, a postal worker and member of Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) noted after the rally, we should never indicate any kind of willingness to accept anything less than our demand. It was a mistake to weaken the workers’ demand for their jobs back with the downgrade of comparable work, and it was a gift to management.
Fewer officials spoke at this rally, which was another improvement, but Michael Hurley, Regional Vice-President of CUPE, did speak again. Right before he took the mic, a worker we named Milly, whom we interviewed previously, leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Get your aspirin ready.” Hurley barks at workers and supporters like a rabid dog, and he’s still pushing a hard protectionist line and grumbling about disloyalty. No organizer worth their salt would ever pit workers against each other or pretend that management loyalty is a thing, unless they were trying to disorganize workers. But we don’t have to put up with this. We can come together as a community, with workers in the lead, and keep Hurley on point. This struggle is about management’s reckless and cutthroat decision to treat workers and patients like they’re disposable.
I had been told there would be an open mic opportunity at the rally, but it turned out that was incorrect, or possibly that worker suggestions were not followed through with, so I thought I’d share what I had prepared to say:
“This struggle isn’t about competition between different groups of workers and it’s certainly not about management loyalty. There’s no such thing as management loyalty! Management isn’t loyal to anyone except themselves and the bottom line! In the first three years of the provincial funding freeze, HSN management has increased salaries for top executives, as well as their numbers on the Sunshine List, a disclosure of public employees making more than $100,000/year. In 2013, the same year SHS workers got cut by half, HSN had 131 executives on the Sunshine List. In 2014, that number ballooned to 179. In 2015, that number grew again to 218 executives on the Sunshine List. Denis Roy made over $360,000. Chris Bourdon made over $380,000, both up from previous years. Their salary increases correspond to the cuts laundry workers are facing. These are clear, calculated, and reckless decisions that sacrifice workers and patients as disposable human beings and we have to fight back! Workers’ power doesn’t come from politicians; it comes from our collectivity, our unity, and our ultimate ability to stop working if we choose.
A union is its workers, not its officials. As much as we might want them to, officials can’t wage the fight we need to fight in this plant to win. Laundry workers will ultimately have to do that themselves. Union officials can stop by for a rally, make some statements to the press, and talk tough into a microphone, but who faces the boss every day? Who makes sure that hospital has enough linen for patients? Who runs that plant?
And the same goes for Glenn Thibeault who has never stuck his neck out for workers! We need to build and rely on our own strength. We have to take this struggle into our own hands!”
Later that evening, Milly sent me a message saying she read my last report and she really liked it. I asked her what she thought of the rally. She thought it was better because workers were prepared to speak, but she thinks there should be more workers prepared to speak next time, and that it was good to see more unions out. I agree. The way forward is for laundry workers to continue to build their strength by speaking up. I would add that workers ensure their union officials are representing their understanding of this struggle, and suggest starting worker-led outreach to nurses, other hospital workers, patients and patient groups.
The next rally will be Tuesday, November 8 at 5:30 pm at the Cancer Centre at HSN, during their board meeting.
Rachael Charbonneau, November 7, 2016