To the barricades with Judy Darcy?

A Straight Goods Interview, Saturday 29 June 2002

CUPE president says grassroots demand prompted call for militant action

In May, CUPE's national president Judy Darcy created a stir and headlines by warning CUPE members they should be prepared for tear gas and water cannons. She told a cheering convention of local CUPE organizers the cuts and repression of Ontario's Harris Conservatives may have left public servants with no choice but to adopt disruptive street tactics.

Most news reports did not mention that, in fact, Darcy proposed a multi-pronged strategy including building stronger local unions, escalating strike support with flying squads of pickets, stepping up efforts against privatization and promoting labour movement unity. But the story the came out was that Darcy is promoting much more militant tactics for her members and other unions in Ontario.

Will it fly? Will rank-and-filers buy the rhetoric? Will general strikes and civil disruption give Harris a convenient enemy at a time when his government is at its lowest point ever in the polls?

Straight Goods reached Judy Darcy by cell en route to the Halifax airport last week to ask her these kinds of things.

SG: Why now when Harris is low in the polls?

JD: There really is an even more marked shift, from the far right to the Ultra Right.

At the convention itself, my speech met with a very very positive response. It really seemed to really cap the mood in the room. It's in synch with what a lot of activists are feeling: what our own people have gone through, all those social service sector strikes, small groups of women hung out to dry... They're stressed out and fed up.

With the changes coming in for occupational health and safety in the omnibus bill covering a who lot of terrible changes, people have nowhere else to go. There's been very much a mood of we've been hunkering down, we're fighting locally, but this demands a much more widespread response. That was the mood in the room. We talked about what a plan of action would look like on several fronts.

The right-to-refuse-unsafe-work stuff is brand new. A lot of workers on shop floor haven't experienced that yet. Once workers in a plant want an inspector there right away and they find out they're not going to get an inspector, when they find out it's all handled by voicemail now, they'll start to catch on. There was a sense in some unions and sectors that people are just beginning to understand there's a drastic shift happening.

The attacks are clearly directed at workers and not broadly understood by the population. For example, on private health care, the majority of Ontarians are pretty worried. By workers taking action it shows what Harris government is doing is not good for the province or the economy. When employers get affected they will say enough of this shit.

SG: What do you expect to accomplish?

JD: During the Days of Action in 1997-98, it was clear that some of biggest industries in the province were not happy campers. So after an initial onslaught [from the government], was a sense they were trying to avoid confrontation. My sense is they've decided they're not going to get re-elected.

SG: Will the public support increased militancy from labour in Ontario?

JD: In CUPE we invest enormous resources into getting our message out to the public. We've got to build the broadest possible coalition we've ever built, promoting our vision of expanded public health care system, getting churches and farm groups involved. We have to be on the frontlines on water, health care, private education. Our members are saying there's a limit to how much we can take. If people don't draw line in the sand, there won't much standing.

SG: Do you think you'll have the support of your members in calling for greater militancy?

JD: I'm not known for giving speeches calling for big bang in sky. That was the mood in the room. A provincewide general strike is one piece of it—but it would have to be with the whole labour movement. It has to be strategic and effective. It can't be just symbolic—not protest for the sake of protest.

We need to organize massively for strike support—it hasn't been done in years—so we can move hundreds of people into place for a group of workers. The labour movement needs to respond. When Local 4400 (Toronto school support staff) was out (last winter), we didn't call for the whole labour movement to walk, because we hadn't stayed out for the teachers. We've got to be prepared to go there.

When we start dotting the i's and crossing the t's you will see a wide range of actions.