Employees of the Ontario Public Service are getting ready to hit the bricks. Negotiations for a collective agreement for the 35,000 workers, members of the Ontario Public Service Employees’ Union, are stalled. The old agreement expired on December 31, 2014. Management is pitching take-away demands the likes of which have not been seen since the days of Conservative Premier Mike Harris.
by Julius Arscott
The union began mobilizing its members in late 2014. The bargaining team received a 90% strike mandate – unusual for a public sector union. The early vote was a gamble by the union leadership. The high level of support resulted from the major cuts brought to the table by the employer. These include a 4 year wage freeze (on top of the 2 year wage freeze from the last round of bargaining), the continuation of two-tier compensation with a 12 step wage grid which begins 5% below the current rate, major attacks on health benefits, on long term disability and on seniority rights. In addition, the employer unilaterally imposed a 50% premium increase for post retirement health benefits; workers have to pay thousands of dollars every year after retirement.
Union activists continue to push for ‘no concessions bargaining’ to buck the trend of losses which has taken place for decades. Toronto area activists led the effort to prioritize ‘No concessions bargaining’ prior to demand setting. Already the Corrections division of the OPS has clearly stated it will not accept any concessions. OPSEU President Warren ‘Smokey’ Thomas has publicly repeated his commitment to this position. Mobilization efforts come on the heels of bargaining by AMAPCEO, which took its first ever strike vote. OPSEU, ALOC, AMAPCEO and PEGO have engaged in a united front of solidarity against cuts. This is a tactic employed locally by some activists, including this writer, in the previous round of bargaining, in the absence of a formal agreement by the leaders of the unions concerned.
Efforts continue with information pickets at MPP offices and elsewhere, unit meetings in the workplace, ‘wear blue’ days, and large public demonstrations. On February 17, in the frigid early morning after a long weekend, over 800 members and supporters demonstrated in front of the Ontario Legislature in Toronto. OPSEU has generated a public campaign focussing on the fight to protect public services, a popular idea. There are growing signs of solidarity with public sector workers, with one journalist asking Ontario Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne after the demo why she would not increase OPSEU member wages – a question unheard of in recent memory, implicitly supporting public sector workers.
At the time of writing, the employer has put ‘Essential Services’ on the table, a process designed by law to determine who gets to strike and who stays on the job in the event of a strike. This typically takes several months to complete. It is expected to take even longer thanks to a recent federal court ruling which benefits organized labour. A delay in negotiations is good for OPSEU, providing time to mobilize the membership after more than a decade of members being put to sleep by the labour leadership. The latest strike took place in 2002. It also gives members time to prepare financially for a strike. The coming of warmer weather helps too. The PanAm and ParaPan American games set for Toronto in July will put this struggle in the global spotlight, highlighting the fight against capitalist austerity here, and connecting it to similar fights around the world. A big battle with public sector unions is something that the Liberal Party does not want. The more pressure on Premier Wynne, the better. Federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau needs votes in Ontario to do well in the October federal election. The provincial Liberals have never faced a strike by the OPS.
Union activists should remain vigilant in backing their demand for no concessions. The union leadership has been all to willing to accept major concessions in past rounds of bargaining. The tone this round is a product of a membership outcry. The OPS is the largest provincial public sector bargaining unit in the country. A defeat could be catastrophic for all public sector unions. The reason the proposed cuts go so deep is that management thinks it can get away with it. That underlines the importance of building the united front with other unions, including the Ontario Federation of Labour, which OPSEU should rejoin immediately. The way to win is to protect public services, in unison with community and social justice groups, culminating in a province-wide general strike against austerity.