By Julius Arscott, OPSEU Executive Board Member, Region 5 Toronto
Ontario Public Service workers, represented by the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), are being asked to ratify 4-year deals for the union’s 35,000 members in its OPS “unified” and corrections bargaining units.
Presidents of locals from across the province were called to a special “emergency meeting” on June 9, on only 3 days notice, where they were urged by OPSEU officials to ratify the tentative agreements.
The deals were hatched by the employer, the chairs of OPSEU’s Central (Unified) and Corrections Employee Relations Committees and senior union staff, with no involvement of the elected bargaining teams, which were not yet fully in place.
The employer insisted on secrecy as a precondition to the deals going forward. The agreements were presented to the OPSEU Executive Board, which agreed to hold the June 9 meeting and put the offers to votes by the membership.
In the meantime, with local presidents and activists in the dark, speculation grew in the lead up to the June 9 meeting where, at a hotel in north-east Toronto, participants were finally given the details of both deals. These include the roll-over of current contract provisions, a 7.5 per cent wage increase over 4-years, and a number of benefits changes.
But while corrections delegates proceeded to elect their team to complete negotiations on possible special wage adjustments, delegates from the larger 27,000-member unified unit were informed that their team elections were suspended pending the outcome of the ratification vote.
When delegates from both units objected to deals being negotiated without their elected teams, officials argued this was a time-limited opportunity to bargain a deal as the massively unpopular provincial Liberal government works to neutralize its labour opposition. When participants challenged the suspension of the unified team elections, officials quoted legal advice that an election could be considered bargaining in “bad faith.” When members attempted to make decisions, their motions were ruled out of order. It was not ‘a constituted meeting’, said union officials, so participants were prevented from voting to continue with the planned elections.
Several activists, including this writer, argued that the union was not risking bad faith as it would be proceeding with pre-existing, board-approved policy; it would be fulfilling its obligations to the membership. Many members expressed frustration that a deal was negotiated in less than a day, and without an elected bargaining team, which could have been fully in place just a few short weeks following management’s original offer.
Much frustration was directed towards the perceived undemocratic nature of the process. Members were told that teachers unions had ratified their recent deal without it even being put to a vote by their members. They were warned about political games being played in the background, as Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne’s mandate runs down. Members were warned of the a risk of a snap election this fall, and warned the deal had to be ratified ASAP in case the provincial Conservatives take power. The Liberals want labour peace, officials assured the crowd.
The deal’s contents
The deal includes a 7.5% raise over 4 years, removal of the hated Attendance Support Management Program (ASMP, for unified members), inclusion of out of country medical coverage, mandatory employee paid catastrophic drug coverage, and $40/ half hour cap for services of a psychologist. On the face of it, there are no concessions.
However, the proposal does not alter the existing two-tier arrangements from previous rounds of bargaining. A 3% lower pay grid for new hires, removal of termination pay, and major changes to post-retirement benefits, including new hires paying 100% of the premium costs, remain intact, and become entrenched over the next 4 years if this agreement is ratified.
This deal is also presented right after major legislative proposals from the government including changes to the Employment Standards Act (ESA) and raising the minimum wage by 32% to $15/ hour by 2019, which is a great victory largely due to the efforts of the $15 and Fairness campaign.
If the current deal is ratified it could set the tone for future public sector negotiations — despite upcoming positive changes to the minimum wage and labour standards. In other words, this could be a missed opportunity for workers to increase wages in a significant way.
Meanwhile, the employer would be able to present a ratified OPS deal as the model, and as an excuse to stop other public sector workers from increasing their own wages in tandem with the increase in the minimum wage.
Public sector workers have been saddled with several years of zeroes. The OPS endured 4 years of zero wage increases, plus a freeze in grid wage progression for two of those years. Another worry is that the proposed changes to the ESA may not have an impact on us for the next 4 years if we ratify the deal prior to passage of the legislation. The employer has also signaled the removal of the requirement of a doctor’s note by employers for workers using sick days. While the ASMP program is not part of the collective agreement, the pledge to remove this policy is being used to sweeten the semi-rotten porridge.
Why members should reject the deal
For all the above reasons, I will vote against the deal, and encourage others to do the same.
Member apathy is often cited as an excuse to ratify uninspiring contracts. While it is true that having an engaged membership is key to successful bargaining. Concessionary and otherwise lacklustre contracts such as this do nothing to mobilize members, ever. It is fair to say that the lack of enthusiasm in the bargaining process is a product of years of concessions bargaining.
If we aim to inspire members to participate in the union, we need to advance big ideas that break completely from the status quo. An example of this is seen in the recent British election in which socialist Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party campaign registered a major shift on the political landscape. It completely contradicted most political pundits and the corporate media, which ruled out the possibility of radical change. Corbyn, and in a less direct way, Bernie Sanders, suggest the type of challenge we should be bringing to our boss and the ruling class in general. So why not fight for major increases in pay? Why not fight for more vacation time with family and friends? Why not fight for a shorter work week with no loss in pay and benefits, to share the available work?
The decision by the OPSEU brass to set aside the basic collective bargaining principle and policies – like the centrality of elected teams – shows the problems of relying on the union bureaucracy in a period of concessions and retreats, and the need for activists to build organized networks to fight both for union democracy and for stronger contracts that address members’ priorities. Activists should continue to fight the austerity agenda of the parties of Bay Street, and challenge the leadership of their unions. Increasingly, workers are becoming increasingly untrusting of the union leadership. There is a good reason for that. The leadership should lead the fight against concessions and austerity, fight for gains, and operate in an open and transparent manner. No to backroom deals. It is a duty to halt the downward spiral of 2 tier wages and benefits, which are sure to bite us sooner or later.