It is so good to be here today with you for this last session of your conference. From everything I’ve heard, it has been an incredibly productive and busy few days you’ve had together.
I want to thank all of you for taking time away from your work and family to be here this week and for your participation during the sessions.
I also want to take a moment to recognize your entire committee not only for their leadership at this conference but for the role they play advancing social service issues all throughout the year.
And finally, I want to give a shout out to my friend, Carrie Lynn, this sector is extremely fortunate to have her leading the way during these turbulent times. She is a doer, focuses on getting shit done and she is undoubtedly one of the most reliable allies that I know. So Carrie Lynn thank you for everything that you do to make our union better.
“Whatever it Takes” – I can’t think of a better conference theme for a gathering of CUPE Ontario’s social service workers—because you always do whatever it takes to make sure justice is won, and justice is done.
In your jobs, and as union activists, you do whatever it takes for the people of Ontario—especially for the most vulnerable and those in most need of social supports.
When it comes to fighting poverty, you are there.
When it comes to fighting inequity and inequality, you are there—ALWAYS in solidarity with other workers, and ALWAYS in coalition with communities.
And when it comes to fighting Doug Ford and his government’s actions, I know you will be there in solidarity and in coalition with others in your workplaces and in your communities.
CUPE’s social service workers can always be counted on to rise up, alongside others. You can be counted on to reach out to your members and to those who depend on social services. You can be counted on to build meaningful and widespread resistance.
And that’s going to be crucial. Because already we know that the Ontario government responds to is vocal, well-organized and militant protest—especially when it is rooted in community, broad-based and citizen-led.
We saw this after the Ford attack on Franco-Ontarians. We saw it again when Minister Lisa McLeod introduced changes to provincial supports for children on the autism spectrum.
Just last Thursday, the government flinched because of the pressure mounted by parents, social service workers, service providers, educators and even school boards.
But the government’s latest announcement in reaction to the fightback teaches us other important lessons about what we are up against.
It tells us that whatever tweaks the Ford government makes to its policies and to calm public anger, we can’t relax—we can’t get distracted—not for a minute.
Instead, we must use our advantage and push that much harder for bigger and more meaningful shifts in policy.
The government may have backtracked a bit on its original plan it hasn’t moved very far. It is extending the support for children currently receiving government-funded therapy for only six months.
It is still cutting funds to agencies. It is still directing public money to individual families and forcing them to purchase private services, rather than enhance the special programs and the supports in schools. And the consequences will be devastating.
Agencies that were receiving public funding will be forced to market their services and charge parent fees. Without a predictable funding base, their operations will be de-stabilized and put at risk.
Already agencies say they are adopting new staffing models to fit the new service delivery model, and they are preparing for stay layoffs.
That’s what happens when governments cut funding for public services and social programs.
That’s what happens when governments refuse to advance collective solutions to problems and instead make citizens deal with them individually.
That’s what happens when governments hand over responsibility for services and the well-being of people to the market.
It’s what the Ford government wants to make happen across the social service sector in Ontario—no service—no program—will be left untouched.
During the election, Doug Ford said his government would scrap plans to expand public funding for the expansion of licensed child care and instead give families a tax rebate.
He said this would allow families to buy the care they need. But we know that tax rebates won’t build more child care facilities; they won’t bring down parent fees; and they sure as hell won’t help lift the wages and working conditions of child care workers.
You know as social service workers, that social problems require public spending on social solutions. But that’s exactly what the Ford government doesn’t want.
The Progressive Conservatives so-called social assistance reforms are all about cutting back while blaming and punishing the poor for their circumstances when we all know that rising poverty rates are the result of system failure, not people failure.
The fact is, no one chooses to poor. Poverty comes from not having access to affordable housing. Poverty comes from not being able to get decent work. It often comes with being disabled, and/or Indigenous, and/or racialized, and/or being old, and/or being young, and/or female.
But instead of tackling the systemic causes of poverty by improving social programs, expanding the reach of public services, combatting racism and discrimination, what is the government doing
It’s replacing front-line assistance to social service recipients with digital services; it’s rolling back a previously announced increase in benefits; and its putting in place measures to force those on social assistance to develop individual action plans to become more self-reliant.
If the consequences of these reforms weren’t so serious, I would say they are laughable. I mean, how is support delivered through a Smart Phone going to help people who can’t find a place to live let alone afford a cellphone service.
How is an individual action plan going to help anyone move out of poverty when there are so many social and economic roadblocks in the way—roadblocks that no individual could possibly overcome.
Friends, everything Doug Ford’s government is doing goes against everything our union stands for, and we must—we absolutely must—use all the power we have to block it.
We believe in social solidarity; the Conservatives sew divisions. We believe in government for the people; the Conservatives govern for the profiteers.
Now is the time for an all-out mobilization to defend our values, to defend what we know is right.
When the government comes after more programs and services—and it will in the April budget—we must organize and defend them.
When provincial funding cuts and program changes threaten our collective agreement protections—we must organize and defend them.
When the province comes after our legal rights and those of others—especially constitutional rights—we must organize and defend them.
And when I say “we”, I don’t mean only those of us in this room. I don’t mean only our local executives, or shop stewards, or the members of our bargaining team—I mean all CUPE members together.
We need to engage our members in a mass mobilization the likes of which our union has not engaged in since the days of Mike Harris. Only this time we have to do it even better—even more seriously—and be even more resolved.
Our fight is going to be a long one—there will be many battles. We must make sure that we can sustain our effort, and that we get stronger along the way.
We must make sure that the commitment of our members grows, that they are encouraged and energized through each step they take. Because that’s how you can build and demonstrate membership power.
Organizing and mobilizing, in every single workplace, in every single community on every last threat to our services and jobs.
We must not under-state or gloss over how hard it is going to be to get from where we are when it comes to membership engagement and mobilization to where we have to get to.
But we also can’t get overwhelmed by the enormity of the job ahead. Instead, we must break it down into tasks, recruit members to help lead the work, recruit more members to share in the work, and get it done, piece by piece, step by step.
We must be organized and disciplined, but we must also be open and inviting. We will have more success getting members involved by appealing to their hearts—to their values—their sense of justice.
As I am sure you know, the sledgehammer approach—where we rail away at members, berate them for not doing enough, pound them with facts and figures to convince them to act—is never very effective.
At the same time, we must stop treating members like glass. I’ve met thousands of CUPE members since I first became a member at the age of 16—I know they don’t break easily.
They are smart and skilled and capable. In my experience, if you have confidence in members and allow them to do good work, help them learn and develop skills, they will take up the challenge and succeed.
Good organizers don’t try to do everything themselves—they build a sense of collective responsibility—they make union work rewarding for everyone involved.
There is absolutely no doubt in mind that we can do this—and I am especially confident that CUPE’s social service sector will lead the way.
You’ve learned some great skills at this conference; you’ve discussed strategies; you know what to do.
You know all about taking action for the public good—you know how to organize for social change—and you know maybe more than anyone in our union the injustices—the damage—the inequities that will come if Doug Ford moves forward his agenda.
We can win this fight if we are united, grow our numbers and strengthen our base.
We can win this fight if we show courage and stamina.
We can win this fight if we stay with it, if we work with our allies in the labour movement and outside.
Together, we can and we will be unstoppable. Together, we can and we will stop the Ford government.
And you can count on CUPE to be there with the human and financial resources that collectively we need to win.
Thank you and safe travels home.