For the third time in nine months the provincial government in Nova Scotia has moved to revoke the right to strike from unionized workers in Nova Scotia (in July 2013 the NDP government shamelessly did it to paramedics while the NSGEU silently watched, and in early March of this year the new Liberal government used coercive legislation to break the NSGEU’s own strike at Northwood Manor’s homecare division). The Liberals are introducing Bill 37 to crush a work stoppage and force nurses represented by the NSGEU in the Capital Health district off picket lines and back into understaffed nursing units.
(It is currently being stalled in Law Amendments committee through a combination of rank and file nurses stacking the speaking list and the NDP finally finding the vestigial backbone that had not seen use since 2008 and using procedural wrangling to keep the bill in committee)
The draconian overreaction by the state and the surprisingly militant response from the normally very conciliatory NSGEU has created a crisis for labour and the state in Nova Scotia. There’s no doubt there’s a showdown brewing with the province and capital on one side and the labour movement and its allies on the other. It’s a test for labour and the broader left in the province and for anyone interested in understanding politics, political economy or the nature of work in the province it’s a moment where a whole pile of problems, developments and dynamics are now laid out quite clearly.
The realities on the ground in Nova Scotia are startling: the province is threatening to revoke the most basic labour right (the ability to collectively organize and withhold your own labour) from 33,000 workers – almost half the union membership in a province where the labour movement is overwhelmingly concentrated in the public sector. The NSGEU, one of the largest unions in the province, have favoured binding arbitration and rejected militancy in recent years yet its rank and file are largely fed up and many of its members – mostly young, well educated women – are fired up and willing to push its leadership. To their credit, the union, like the Chicago Teachers Union before them, has made this strike about more than wages and instead focused the the role of properly funded public services, a strategy that is necessary for the survival of public sector unionism. The broader labour movement in the province has been quick to recognize the importance of this battle and is more progressive, more militant and better organized than it has been in years. Halifax’s left has consolidated in recent years and the socialist oriented Solidarity Halifax have had two years to consolidate its organization and its ability to intervene in this struggle may largely determine the viability of its project. The NS NDP, recently decimated in a general election, used back to work legislation in the sector less than a year ago but seem to be willing to provide parliamentary opposition to the Liberal’s plans.
Among all the dynamics that make this bill and the left and labour’s response to it so important is that the actions of this government are not simply an assault on the rights of organized labour. Bill 37 is an assault on the rights of women.
There is no way to look at this bill and the view that this government and its supporters take and not see this as based in large part on a gendered understanding of work. A legislature which is overwhelmingly male is sitting in a legislative chamber trying to make it illegal for health care workers – an overwhelmingly female workforce – to withhold their labour.
Bill 37 does not restrict the right to strike of a narrow band of emergency healthcare professionals – it restricts the right of a wide variety of people who engage in carework and jobs in the caring professions are overwhelming held by women (to say nothing of the unwaged carework of the home where women still carry the vast majority of the burden). The list of workers who lose the right to withhold their labour doesn’t just include nurses and paramedics: it includes home care, home support and even child care workers. This isn’t about over regulating the labour of essential emergency workers, its about destroying the labour rights of anyone engaged in care work and the vast majority of those people are not men.
In a recent-ish piece for Jacobin Magazine, American labour journalist Sarah Jaffe wrote that “While bosses, administrators, and politicians expect and tout the natural “caring” that women who work in care fields provide, [daycare worker Nancy] Harvey points out that it adds to their exploitation. “Kindness is taken for weakness,” she says.”
Just reading the comments sections on the Chronicle Herald or CBC websites makes it clear that these assumptions about women, work and care underpin the false outrage that justifies withholding the rights of an overwhelmingly female workforce: the women on strike would not go on strike if they really cared about their jobs or their patients. The women who are walking picket lines all night in front of province house in an April ice storm in order to demand that their new contract includes nurse to patient ratios do not really care about patients. The women who have dedicated their lives to a profession that puts them on 12 hour shifts with the sick, the dying, the elderly and the suffering do not really care about patients. Demanding fair wages, the right to control your own labour or the ability to ensure that your work place is safe is incompatible with caring because care work is not real work. And as we all know, women are naturally more into the caring part than the working part.
But in a world (and a province) where a larger and larger part of the work force is female and where most of the very few growth areas for employment are female dominated care professions the continued belief that care work is not real labour – or at least not the sort of labour that one can withhold, bargain over and receive a fair wage and adaquate benefits to perform – is increasingly incompatible with a desire to create a more just world. Workplace control, fair compensation, gender equality and respect for the dignity of all labour require us to recognize that work is gendered and that all people – regardless of their gender – ought to have absolute control of their work, including the right to organize together and to collectively withhold their labour.
The gendered dynamics of work and labour rights don’t exist in a vacuum. The context, particularly the regional context, also matters. And in Nova Scotia this has been a horrible year for gender politics: a high profile gang rape led to a teenage taking her life, an inexplicable tradition of “rape chants” at Saint Mary’s University became public, anti-choice ads appeared on public busses and in general it felt like there was a war being waged on anyone who wasn’t male. The general misogyny of our times is reflected in Bill 37.
The same logic that says women aren’t in control of their labour also underpins rape culture and the anti-choice assault on reproductive rights: the bodies of women – labouring bodies, libidinal bodies, reproductive bodies, living bodies – do not belong to women. The right to control those bodies and to decide when they labour, when they carry children to term and when and with whom they have sex are decisions not to be left to women. Instead bosses and men and the state are believed to be better arbiters of what is best for women and what women ought to be permitted to do.
The fight over Bill 37 tells us a lot about the world we live in: a world where the state can simultaneously tell us that public services are too expensive to fund in times of austerity but are so important than we need to take away basic rights to protect them. A world where the state and industry demand that labour maintain its end of the post-war labour settlement and abide by strict regulation but refuse to recognize the right to strike that helped define modern industrial legality. A world where rank and file members of unions are starting to force their leadership to abandon concessions and arbitration as a strategy.
It’s also a world where some work is more highly valued than other work and the ways in which we evaluate whose labour is really labour is always refracted through the lens of gender. Where you stand on Bill 37 says a lot about whose side you’re on – not just if you support bosses or workers, but also if you see care work as work worth defending and women as workers worth respecting.