Since April of last year, something amazing has been happening in CUPE in Ontario. CUPE locals in social services, overwhelmingly female workers, have been taking a stand against bad bosses and their austerity agendas. The most significant result, along with the some major improvements for precarious workers, is the emergence of a militant leadership led by women.
Strike activity has been focused in two sectors – children’s protection services and libraries. Protracted underfunding by the provincial government has led to wage stagnation and dramatic increases in workloads for frontline workers in Children’s Aid Societies across the province. Library Workers have been fighting to improve wages and working conditions for their primarily precarious workforce for years.
Children’s Protection Services
CUPE Local 4325, representing workers at Family and Children’s Services of Guelph and Wellington County, were the first out on the picket lines in April 2016. Their previous negotiations resulted in a 2-year wage freeze, followed upon ratification by a 9% increase for management staff. After three weeks on the line, the union was able to sign a deal that increased wages and improved contract language.
In September, 434 members of CUPE 4914, representing workers at Peel Children’s Aid Society, were out on strike to demand workload and job evaluation improvements. After the bargaining committee rejected the employer’s latest offer, management mailed the proposal to each member. The workers rallied to defeat a final offer vote by 93%.
“This offer does nothing to help the children of Peel or the health and safety of workers,” said Stephanie Zaine, frontline worker and member of CUPE 4914. After 13 weeks on the picket line, the local was able to get management to agree to refer outstanding issues to binding arbitration.
Just two days before Christmas, the Nipissing and Parry Sound Children’s Aid Society locked out their workers represented by CUPE Local 2049. Workers had rejected a contract by 96% the week before the lockout and management had no improvements to offer. The issues stem once again from the provincial underfunding and the stress it causes with increased workloads and fear of children ‘falling between the cracks.’ CUPE spokesperson, Fran Belanger, emphasized that the society regularly leaves frontline positions vacant, doesn’t replace employees who are on sick leave, and doesn’t fill other temporary vacancies.
For the remaining child protection workers, these measures require them to cover absent colleagues’ caseloads and perform extra administrative tasks, even though they themselves may be struggling under already excessive workloads. The irony is that management has proposed cuts to sick time provision, even though they regularly don’t replace workers who are off sick!
Fred Hahn, the President of CUPE Ontario, has been kept busy with picket line support.
“The daily reality for the people who work in child protection is that workload needs to be addressed,” says Hahn. “This was first identified with a workload study in 2001 and been recommended in numerous coroner’s inquest reports. Many front line workers live in fear that with the complexities and intensification of the cases they carry, one of the children on their caseload could fall through the cracks. If the government is truly committed to fixing the problems facing the CAS, then it must deal with workload and health and safety issues that child protection workers face every day, along with providing the funding necessary for expanding the mandate of services.”
In addition to the picket line activity at CAS workplaces, 2016 saw an increase in militancy among Public Library locals. Toronto Public Library Workers Union President Maureen O’Reilly led the local in building overwhelming public support for its members during the Ford regime. To support their bargaining this past year, CUPE Local 4948 promoted a creative video exposing the pitfalls of precarious work (ourpubliclibrary.to). They focused attention on the fact that over half the members of the union were precarious workers. While Local 4948 bargained a settlement without a strike in 2016, the same was not true for two other locals.
This past summer, CUPE Local 1989, workers at the Mississauga Public Library, went on strike with a central strategy – to move the wages of their lowest paid workers out of poverty. The pages at the library made only pennies over minimum wage; 56% of the members worked part-time, without benefits, paid sick days, or paid vacation. Most are scheduled for only 12-16 hours per week. Led by President Laura Kaminker, the local organized spirited picket lines that included programs for children and youth (and free pizza); they were overwhelmingly successful in building community support. After three weeks, the employer returned to the table and the local was able to win a living wage for their pages, improvements for part-timers and a percentage increase for all. Significantly it was support from Maureen O’Reilly and Fred Hahn that helped get the employer back to the bargaining table.
Another similarity between the Mississauga and Toronto Library locals is that they both separated from their larger municipal-based local in recent years. Women’s leadership may have had something to do with the success of these locals in building solidarity amongst its members and solid community support.
The success of Local 1989’s struggle helped to buoy the spirits of another library unit, the Essex County Library Workers, 57 members of amalgamated CUPE Local 2974. Forced out on strike just a week before their Mississauga sisters, Local 2974 is now in their seventh month on the picket line! Management has held fast to their bid for concessions, on issues like sick time. The attack on sick time is particularly abhorrent for library workers who for the most part don’t have this as a benefit for their predominantly precarious workforce. The Essex County Council set the concessions agenda. Like every other municipal council across Ontario, they had their minds set on stripping sick leave provisions from all their CUPE units. Perhaps they thought it would be easier to win concessions from a smaller, woman-led and predominantly female unit?
With thousands of dollars in strike support coming in from across the country, CUPE 2974 has kept up the spirits of their members on the line through some very tough times. In December, the leadership was forced to take a final offer to their members. It was overwhelmingly rejected.
Currently the Essex Library Board is threatening to open the larger libraries on a rotating basis starting this month, using their managers as scabs.
Both current strikes are looking for support – through messages of solidarity, and if you’re in the neighbourhood, picket line support. Updates and picket line locations can be accessed at www.cupe.on.ca
This piece was first published by People’s Voice