By David Bush
Over 800 OPSEU members and allies rallied in front of the Ontario Legislature on Tuesday morning to welcome back sitting MPP’s with a strong anti-austerity message. The rally organized by OPSEU and supported by other public sector unions in the province such as AMAPCEO, CUPE, ONA and PEGO, was called to put pressure on the government’s austerity agenda at the bargaining table.
The bargaining between the Ontario government and OPSEU, which represents 35,000 workers in the Ontario Public Service (OPS), has reached an impasse. OPSEU’s previous contract has expired and the government has refused to back down from its concessionary demands despite a 90 percent strike vote from OPSEU members.
The government wants wage freezes and a new twelve step wage grid that will see new hires come in five percent below their current starting position, and all positions on the wage grid rolled back except for those at the very top of it.
The Liberals also want to make it easier for the government to contract out services and implement layoffs. On top of this the government is looking to strip away a variety of benefits, especially for sick and injured workers.
“It doesn’t matter what faction (of the workforce) you are come from. Whether you are young, you are old, you are sick or you are injured. They’re coming after everyone,” said Roxanne Barnes, OPSEU’s chair of the Central/Unified bargaining team for OPS. “We want a fair contract. We don’t want to see any more cuts to our benefits. We don’t want to see our injured coworkers being hit again and we want a fair contract for our youth coming in.”
The Liberals have justified their harsh austerity proposals by claiming there is no new money and the government is running a deficit.
To counter this claim OPSEU has stated that the government has squandered 8.2 billion dollars of possible revenue on the gas plant and ORNGE air scandals, as well as by privatizing services and cutting taxes. OPSEU argues this money would be better spent of strengthening public services. OPSEU has made this a central theme in their contract campaign with the slogan, ‘what would you do with 8.2?’ plastered on placards and t-shirts at the rally.
Many speakers and workers at the rally were clear in stating that public sector workers are not the cause of the government’s current budget woes.
“Last year’s total debt was 296 billion dollars. The projected debt this year is 311 billion dollars, a difference of 16 billion dollars. Have you had a raise for the past three years?” Ping Wu, the President of PEGO asked the crowd, who thundered back with a resounding ‘No!’ “We [OPS workers] are not costing the government any more money. The reason we [the province] are in deficit is not because of us.”
During the rally Warren ‘Smokey’ Thomas, the President of OPSEU, characterized the Wynne government’s approach to bargaining as worse than any rightwinger.
“I believe they have been trying to push us out on strike since last spring,” said Barnes. “They aren’t negotiating, they are just attacking. They are not sitting there and trying to reason with us. They just want us to take the concessions.”
Bargaining at a standstill
The OPS negotiations have come to a standstill. OPSEU and the government are now in the midst of Essential and Emergency Services (EES) bargaining that will govern the scope of any possible strike or lockout. The EES bargaining is complicated, involving almost 1400 separate agreements, but once it is wrapped up either side could issue a no board report which would start a 17-day countdown for a possible strike or lockout.
While the Central/Unified OPS bargaining has all but ceased for the time being, the 5,000 corrections officers represented by OPSEU continue to bargain with province at a separate table. Corrections officers are facing a similar set of concessions from the province, wage freezes, a new twelve point wage grid that essentially is a two tier contract and rollbacks of benefits.
Many of the correctional officers at the rally said they also found it unfair that correctional officers don’t have access to binding arbitration like police, firefighters, and court transportation to break an impasse at the bargaining table. If correctional officers were to go on strike they would still be mandated to run the facilities with a skeleton crew.
“For us in corrections we want a wage adjustment, we want to improve working conditions and we want respect from the government,” said Jim Steenson a correctional officer and member of OPSEU local 582. “We are essential just like police, fire and ambulance. If we go one strike, it is a mediocre strike. Only 50 percent of the staff can strike while the rest are expected to keep the facility going and it puts people at risk.”
In the lead up to and during the OPS negotiations OPSEU has put constant public and workplace pressure on the government from info pickets and MPP office visits to actions at public appearances by Premier Kathleen Wynne and Deb Mathews, the chair of the Treasury Board. In response Wynne has stopped making her schedule publicly available.
“As articulate and prepared as our bargaining teams are at the table, we are not going to be able to change the government’s agenda simply by good arguments at the bargaining table,” said Myles Magner, Regional Vice President of OPSEU Region 5. “What it will take is the pressure of thousands of members in their workplaces and in their communities across the province.”