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Why Ottawa’s museum workers need our support

About a month ago, four hundred employees who work at the Museum of Civilization and the War Museum in Ottawa went on strike.

Unless you live in Ottawa, you may not be aware of this. But we should be — because the issues are remarkably similar to those at the centre of the CBC lockout in 2005 and those we continue to fight today.

The Public Service Alliance of Canada which represents the workers, says that only 6 out of 55 museum guides are permanent. Employees go from contract to contract and lose traction in seniority and wage advancement every time they do. Sound familiar?

Online comments to various news sites about the strike indicate that some members of the public may not take the museum workers’ issues seriously because they are seen to be transient – doing this work until they figure out their “real” future.

This is a really dangerous assumption to make, as anyone in our business knows. People in the culture industry are often taken less seriously than other workers because of the “glamorous” perception of this work and the availability of part-time cyclical work that tends to attract students. Of course, these views are exploited by managements who want to pay their workers less. And we’ve got to stop this, wherever and whenever it happens.

Then there’s the big issue of the public funding of our cultural sector. Last year, the Conservative government subjected the Museum of Civilization to the same “strategic review” that the CBC is undergoing this year. The Museum lost $400,000 in that process. The CBC stands to lose about $50 million.

The Museums’ CEO Victor Rabinovitch hasn’t been vocal about this cut – just like his brother, Robert Rabinovitch who as CEO of the CBC refused to ask the federal government for more money for the Corporation.

This is bigger than a single dispute in the nation’s capital. The strike highlights the need to pull all kinds of workers and citizens together to fight for the overall health of our culture industry. In fact, as I write this, I’m at a conference where people are discussing more unity among everyone in the broader knowledge industry — which includes academics. That means working together to achieve collective agreements that make real careers possible, and proper funding for our cherished institutions so they can survive without undercutting their own employees.

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