SHIRLEY PECK BEAT THE ODDS. She and her union took on the Canadian military and won.
The DND (Department of National Defence) was all set to yank Shirley’s job away from her and six others last fall. Shirley, and her co-workers, and all the members of her PSAC (Public Service Alliance of Canada) union local refused to roll over and play dead. They took on the huge bureaucracy, fought to keep their jobs and won.
Shirley still works as a cleaner at CFB Greenwood, near the middle of the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia. It’s a union job that pays a living wage of over $20 an hour. It’s one of the best jobs in the valley. The DND decided to take that job away last summer.
The seven women cleaners all thought they were working toward a full-time, permanent job in the public service. The DND decision to terminate them came just before that would become possible. The economic security offered by a full-time, permanent job in the public service was yanked away from them.
Their jobs were to be privatized. The DND put out requests for bids from private contractors to do the work. The private contractor offered the women jobs paying about $11 and hour—only half of what they made on the DND payroll.
“I couldn’t believe that the DND would do such a thing,” said Shirley. “I was very worried. How was I going to pay my bills down the road? How was it fair?. “I take care of a daughter who lives with MS. If I lose my job that means I can no longer help her.
“At first I didn’t think there was much hope,” says Shirley. “We just figured we were on our own.”
But they weren’t. Their union, workmates and community sprang into action behind the seven women cleaners.
Union and community solidarity
“What made this successful is that we hit DND hard, and we hit them where it hurts, we hit them in the public eye,” says Colleen Coffey, Atlantic Regional Executive Vice President of PSAC, who lives in Greenwood and once worked on the base there.
“And we hit them fast,” she says.
An electronic letter writing campaign early on had some 1500 participants, not bad for a community of 5,400. Each time a letter was sent five more copies reached the inboxes of Nova Scotia Liberal MPs. That was just the beginning.
A large rally at the base was next, some ninety workers, half the union local membership, turned out at 6 AM in the morning, just when everybody was trying to get to work. Lineups stretched for five kilometres, Coffey says.
“I figured there would be maybe 20 people, the cleaners and the union local executive, but there were 90,” says Coffey. “That day was so important, that was the day the community knew, the base knew, that we meant business.”
The local MP told the workers he could do nothing to help them. A delegation from the union went to his local office to face him down. He was “unavailable.” The workers pointed out that: “We have 1500 signed cards, multiply that by four times that number for each household, and that is how many less votes you will get next time.”
While they were heading for their cars the MP’s office assistant came running after them. It turned out the MP had time to see them after all.
“When that happened I got a feeling we could win,” says Coffey.
The campaign that 'moved hearts'
“Greenwood was the campaign that moved hearts,” said Michele Girash, PSAC’s Privatization and Contracting Out Officer. “These were people who had jobs in a small community where either you worked on the base or you know someone who did.”
On September 26 DND backed down: contracting out cleaning services at CFB Greenwood was off the table; the seven women cleaners were to be made permanent. DND even hired five additional cleaners, to accommodate an expansion on the base.
“The day that we were told that we had won, and that we were getting permanent jobs, it was such a feeling of peace,” says Shirley Peck.
“What really bothered me was how if Greenwood could get rid of qualified cleaners and contract out the same job for a lot less money and no benefits, I mean, who will come next?
It’s a question that hangs in the air for all government workers these days as the blind drive for privatization grips the imaginations of their employers. But, as Shirley and her workmates in Nova Scotia remind us, that mindset is never a match for union and community solidarity .
This article was originally published by The Canadian Labour Institute.
Reprinted with permission for CALM Members use.