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How workers at a university bookstore beat privatization…for now

University of Calgary bookstore workers took their futures into their own hands and won

Nov 09, 2021

By Jon Milton, Communications Staff

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“Some people didn’t want to push too hard,” AUPE Local 052 member Jessica Zaytsoff says, “but most people’s attitude was ‘what are they going to do, fire us?’ Either you fight, and face the potential of losing, or you lose.”

Zaytsoff works at the University of Calgary (U of C) bookstore. Back in the winter semester of 2021, she and her colleagues got word from their managers that the U of C administration planned to contract out the bookstore. Workers would lose their jobs. Some “lucky” ones might get re-hired with reduced wages and benefits, but Zaytsoff and her colleagues weren’t going to risk it.

“The local was notified that the university was ‘looking at different options,’ which just means privatization,” says Kevin Barry, vice-president of AUPE and chair of the union’s Anti-Privatization Committee. “When the employer does that, they’re already far along in the process, which is why it’s important to react vigorously and quickly.

“As soon as you smell a rat, set the trap.”

“When workers decide to take these fights on themselves, they can win. You can’t wait for the union to jump out in front. Start working as a local, on the shop floor. That’s where you can build power.”
Kevin Barry

Kevin Barry, AUPE Vice-President

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And that’s exactly what the bookstore workers did. “Someone started an online petition to stop the privatization, and we started talking amongst ourselves about what to do,” Zaytsoff says. “We got in touch with the union for support. We started holding meetings to plan.”

Once the workers knew they had the full support of their local chair and local council, they got to organizing. “Most, if not all, of the full-time bookstore staff started showing up to meetings,” Zaytsoff says. “We had a few AUPE [staff] from Edmonton show up as well, and they told us stories of how workers had lost fights in similar settings. It helped us see what happens if we don’t fight back—there was a lot to lose.”

Local 052 Chair Justin Huseby says that he “knew the staff were serious when they put posters up inside the store—not outside, not beside, but in the store.” Their message to the administration was like a bold dare: “‘come take them down.’”

Support for their cause grew, and soon staff had formed a strong coalition with the student union, university faculty, and the broader community. They leafletted, wrote articles for the campus newspaper, and made appearances on campus radio.

“I don’t think staff realized how much they meant to the campus community,” Huseby says. “Having allies among the student body and faculty made a huge difference.”

By building capacity with allies, the bookstore workers were poised to escalate. They identified the Vice-President of Finance and Services as a key decision maker in the privatization push and staged a march on the boss, making their expectations clear. When the VP didn’t budge, they demanded to meet with the university president.

For Huseby, escalation was a necessary part of the campaign. “When you just go from zero to 100, it doesn’t really work. You need to build people’s confidence.”

By June, after multiple direct actions, the university made an announcement. It was halting the privatization plan for at least a year. The workers had won—at least for now.

“We’re feeling optimistic but trepidatious,” Zaytsoff says. “In the next month or so, we’re going to start having meetings again, so we’re ready for when the one-year mark comes.”

For Barry, there’s a clear lesson from this campaign. “When workers decide to take these fights on themselves, they can win. You can’t wait for the union to jump out in front,” Barry says. “Start working as a local, on the shop floor. That’s where you can build power.”

Like Barry, Huseby stresses that it wasn’t “the union” that drove the campaign, but the rank-and-file bookstore workers themselves. “Ultimately, the people that are going to save you are yourselves,” he says. “There isn’t a VP or a chair that will be able to swoop in and prevent contracting-out.

They can help, but they can’t replace you.”

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