California Conference on

Privatization of Public Education and Public Services and

The Struggle of Canadian CUPE Against Privatization


(Presentation on September 25, 2010 by Mary Catherine McCarthy, Canadian Union Of Public Employees CUPE, National Coordinator CUPE Anti-Privatization Fightback)

Thanks for inviting me to speak today at your conference about privatization

IT is exciting for me to be here in San Francisco with keen union activists wanting to take on privatization.

My presentation is about the Canadian Union of Public Employees’ strategic priority of taking on privatization. How it came about; what it involves; and how it’s going.

CUPE represents about 600,000 workers in the broader public sector in all 10 provinces. We have members working in education from child early learning and care, K to 12 and post-secondary as well as in health care, social services, municipalities and electricity and water utilities. All of our sectors are affected by privatization.  For many years the key concern was contracting out of services but now especially since the economic downturn we are having to battle sell-offs of entire services, competitive bidding, corporatization and the Public Private Partnerships (P3) that Canadian labour economist Jim Stanford calls ‘a phoney fiscal shell game that enriches investors at our expense.”

 The attack has intensified beyond our wildest dreams. Privatization is presented as a solution to cash strapped local governments and starved provincially funded health, education and social services. The fact that we have a right wing federal government pushing privatization through PPP Canada Inc. doesn’t help either.

Campaigning against privatization has been a feature of our activity for years and in 2007 at our national convention member delegates voted overwhelmingly to scale up the work in defending public services by creating a new fund to intensify our campaign to fight back all forms of privatization including P3s, contracting out, competitive bidding, bad trade deals and the privatization of the funding, administration and delivery of public services.  This commitment of resources for strategic local, regional and national initiatives has been reaffirmed for 2009-2011.

The strategy for taking on privatization includes collective bargaining and political action campaigns that are supported by union education, research and communications. Many of the campaign initiatives have come from our national committees. I work with the National contracting out and privatization committee.  I’ll show their video at the end of this presentation.

The campaigns usually include communications materials (like posters, leaflets, ads etc), member book off to organize events like town hall meetings, lobbying campaigns or membership education and mobilization.  A key part of our strategy is to build capacity within the membership to campaign in their workplace and at the local community level.

As a national union last year we hired Environics to conduct extensive polling and focus group work across the country with the goal of building support for public services as a bulwark against privatization. This project is aimed at understanding Canadians’ views on public services and privatization. Interestingly we found that there is broad support for public services and that positive arguments work best.

For example: The top two arguments:

1. Public services that treat everyone equally are an important part of what it means to be Canadian or part of a democratic society.

2. When services are publicly-funded and operated, they are there for everyone. There is better quality, more accountability and higher environmental and safety standards.

Another recent polling by Nanos has validated public support for public solutions to healthcare problems. 


The results of the research are being used to refine CUPE messaging on the issues, and are being shared with members and allies in other unions and the community.



Collective Bargaining

CUPE’s plan to fight concessions and defend free collective bargaining lays the groundwork to protect public services from restructuring and cutbacks by strengthening members resolve and preparedness to fight concessions, coordinating  bargaining and building solidarity among CUPE locals through solidarity pacts and strike support.

I should mention that each local union in CUPE holds the collective bargaining rights whether or not they participate in a coordinated or central bargaining process. Front line members are on these bargaining committees and are supported by regional staff. Most locals approve their proposals at a general membership meeting. So this is a democratic structure that requires a well informed and hopefully politicized membership. I have found over the years that members get what the threat of privatization is about and are prepared to take it on.

In 2009 we published a new resource, Our best line of defence – Taking on privatization at the bargaining table, to help members use their collective agreements to fight privatization. Coordinated bargaining is another key priority that allows members to defend their rights and the services they deliver from a position of strength.


Member Education

In order to build capacity within our membership CUPE has developed workshops for sector conferences and meetings, for our newly launched ‘stewards learning series’ for the year of the Steward. We also have a week long course ‘Taking on Privatization’. See our leaflet ‘Stop privatization before it starts’. I have brought some examples of our materials.



The fight against privatization requires political action (electoral and extra-parliamentary) and lobbying at all levels. CUPE has provided leadership on public policy to strengthen and protect public services working also with private and public sector unions as well as progressive community organizations including for example the Green Economy Network, the Canadian Health Coalition (and provincial health coalitions); the Trade Justice Network; the Alternative Federal Budget; and the Child Care Advocacy Association of Canada.

Many of our campaigns across the country are focused in promoting a positive message regarding our work and showcasing our members at work. We’ve learned that our members have much more credibility with the public than union leaders.


In the education sector CUPE has supported campaigns at the local and provincial level to resist P3s for school infrastructure renewal in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Alberta. In Ontario the provincial committee is spearheading a province wide tour and survey of locals to determine the extent of contracting out and privatization and to build confidence and skills to lobby local school boards in the lead up to the municipal and school board elections this fall.

In NB campaign to fight P3 schools members have been making presentations to school councils about the problems with P3s and have had with some success in that at one council has now decided to build the new school by traditional procurement.

The key arguments against P3s that we’re using include:

Š      They are more expensive

Š      The community losses control over the service and is therefore less democratic (e.g. some contracts for P3 schools restricts  community access to buildings after hours – so much for ‘Community’ schools)

Š      There is no real risk transfer

Š      Poor quality as investors will often cut corners (e.g. food services and cleaning) to maximize profits

Š      P3s have not been shown in any way to reduce public debt

In the post-secondary sector locals are coordinating bargaining demands regarding contracting out both support staff and academic jobs. The union’s PSE sector works in coalition with the Canadian Federation of Students and other unions to challenge increasing tuition fees as a way for making up for government underfunding. Recently we have been exposing the corporate connections with on-line education and for profit universities.  Last year many campus locals challenged the lack of access to public water and campaigned to restore drinking fountains and ban bottled water.


Some highlights of CUPE’s work in taking on privatization have been:

Š      Research and advocacy for public early learning and child care. CUPE has been a source of agenda-setting research and activism on this key issue, beginning with its 2007 research exposing the planned expansion of Australian multinational ABC Learning into Canada. We launched a campaign to expand public delivery of early learning and child care services.  The campaign is based on research outlining the positive benefits of public delivery done by the Child Care Resource and Research Unit at U of T. We worked closely with its coalition partners to organize a cross-country tour promoting this vision. Workshops and town hall meetings organized by CUPE  child care activists reached out to families, child care workers and union activists to raise awareness about the threat of privatized child care and press governments to invest in public child care. 


Š      Ongoing pro-public research and economic analysis.  CUPE works to document public success stories and expose privatization threats. Recent examples are an in-depth case study analyzing the benefits of Whistler municipal council keeping its sewage plant public, and a major research report highlighting the dangers of hospital privatization in Quebec. CUPE’s economic analysis highlights the economic and social benefits of public services, and advances alternatives that work.


Š      A major national summit on water issues, organized jointly with national advocacy group The Council of Canadians. The Blue Summit, held in November 2009, brought 300 workers, community members and policy advocates together to celebrate the highly successful first decade of the Water Watch coalition. The summit highlighted public success stories to learn from, and mapped the challenges and opportunities for the next decade defending public water. The final summit declaration is an agenda-setting document for CUPE, outlining the union’s key priorities on water.


I have brought our new leaflet ‘Water connects us All”

We are continuing to work on water issues primarily when municipalities look at bringing in multinational corporations like Veolia to not only do the necessary upgrade but to take over the operations and control of this precious resource. Although most Canadians enjoy excellent highly regulated tap water many first nations communities are facing a water crisis.  We are working with our Aboriginal council to promote public alternatives like partnering with a public municipal utility instead of  the privatization agenda that the federal government is pushing.


Š      Promoting an equality agenda. Defending public services and fighting privatization promotes equality. Women, racialized groups, people with disabilities and Aboriginal peoples all benefit from accessible quality public services. These services are great equalizers, helping lift people out of poverty. They also create good, family-supporting jobs.


Š      Research and advocacy for Public Long-term care. In the fall of 2009 CUPE released a research report outlining a vision that ensures seniors have equal access to long term care facilities that provide high quality, legislated standards of care and more care hours. CUPE promoted its vision in a cross-country tour. In town hall-style meetings, academics and advocates met with long term care workers, health coalitions, seniors’ advocacy groups and retired union activists.  The union also produced a video of its members in the sector.


We have had some successes with the municipal councils for example, in Toronto with keeping Toronto-Hydro public and in Victoria with choosing a public option for wastewater treatment an in Port Moody where the municipal council voted to bring back in house solid waste collection and recycling that had been contracted out for ten years. In several provinces P3s have been discredited.



Broadening support for public services

In Toronto a workers assembly has formed that strives to build a new kind of politics without the usual constraints of union membership, single issue campaigns and community groups. Under the slogan:

Solidarity! Resistance!  Change!

The assembly is committed to developing an understanding of what we’re up against, who our potential allies are, and to organize and act in new ways that will take us from a politics of resistance to emancipatory alternatives. The question is whether we can take advantage of the new openings and threats to build a new kind of politics.

An example is the free and accessible transit for the GTA campaign that is organizing a ‘no fare is fair’ street party Oct. 2. This free transit campaign brings together environmental, anti-poverty and accessibility activists.




We all understand that the attack on the public sector is intensifying.

We have the research and auditors general reports that have demonstrated that we can win the argument against privatization but unfortunately, facts, on their own, often have not been able to dissuade ideologically driven councils, boards and governments from contracting-out, using P3s for new facilities and infrastructure, selling off of public assets and opening up water, health care and social services to multi-national for profit corporations.   


A few suggestions to meet the privatization challenges:


Š      Continue to resist all forms privatization and for profit delivery. Provide support for campaigns and collective bargaining including the research, education and communication support needed and develop case studies of successful campaigns.

Š      Make privatization an election issue at all levels of government.

Š      Provide a vision with clear public solutions for the infrastructure, health, equality, and environmental deficits facing our communities across the country. 


We continually have to rise to meet each privatization threat with our allies and mount member and public educational and political action campaigns.



For more information see


I’m happy to participate in this day’s discussions and to learn from your experience here in California


Video of NCPCC Committee report

Mary Catherine McCarthy

National Coordinator

CUPE Anti-privatization Fight-Back

voice: 613-237-1590

cell: 613-899-5158

fax: 613-237-5508


For video of presentation go to

Mary Catherine McCarthy On Canadian CUPE's Fightback Against Privatization