BY CLAIRE CUDAHY
Mobilizing members of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) traveled from Thunder Bay to Red Lake last week to inform the local branch of the union that two of the three bargaining tables for a new collective agreement with the Ontario government are on a “bargaining hiatus.”
In late November, the government tabled a contract for some 38,000 direct government workers that, according to OPSEU president Warren (Smokey) Thomas, would freeze wages for two years, reduce wages of new government employees by five per cent, and outsource large parts of the public service. The complete privatization of Service Ontario was among the items on the bargaining table.
A union membership vote came back with a 90 per cent rejection.
Thomas said that the conciliator appointed by the Ministry of Labour recommended the union bargaining teams take a break to “re-evaluate their bargaining positions” in order to avoid what would likely have resulted in a bargaining impasse that could pave the way for a potential strike.
“We’re looking to try and preserve employment for our members,” said Carmen Story, president of the Red Lake branch of OPSEU, Local 728. “In all of these small communities, the government offices are one of your larger employers.”
There are 50 members in Local 728, including employees of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, Ministry of Northern Development and Mines, Ear Falls Water Plant, Service Ontario, court workers, probation and parole officers, and firefighters.
“One of the things we hope we will get out of this is a contract. Nobody wants a strike, but you have to be prepared that a strike can happen,” added Story.
Previously, OPSEU went on strike in 2002 for just under eight weeks.
“Our teams remain available to bargain,” said Thomas in a recent OPSEU press release. “However, the government needs to re-think their position of wage freezes and massive concessions. The two side aren’t just far apart…the government is on a different planet.”
“Even though we have a 90 per cent strike mandate, our goal is to negotiate a fair contract for our members. The members deserve it, and the public deserves to have a government that behaves responsibly with taxpayer money, instead of cutting public sector jobs, benefits, and wages then wasting billions on private contractors. If the government doesn’t re-evaluate their thinking, this province will enter a period of labour unrest not seen since the Harris years.”
The current collective agreement for all Ontario Public Service employees expired Dec. 31, 2014.