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Thursday, November, 15, 2012 – 7:07:24 AM

By Sean Meyer/London Community News/Twitter: Newswriter22

Union members vocal in their opposition to what they call a provincial attack on collective bargaining rights met in London on Wednesday (Nov. 14) to discuss their strategy for continuing the fight.

Members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) met at Dufferin Hall, as part of a series of meetings across the province over the next three weeks. Locals meeting to put into action a campaign aimed at what CUPE officials define as protecting workers’ democratic rights to free collective bargaining. The evening’s event was one of a series of about 20 regional meetings taking place across the province.

“Public service workers across Ontario are facing threats of new provincial legislation that attacks our democratic rights to collective bargaining and impartial third-party arbitration,” said Fred Hahn, president of CUPE Ontario. “These rights come from decades of hard work that have brought fairness and stability to labour relations in Ontario; they must be protected.”

Bill 115 — the Putting Students First Act — is legislation that allows the provincial government to dictate what a collective agreement must achieve and to change a negotiated agreement unilaterally. The legislation, according to CUPE Ontario vice-president Michael Hurley, also undermines the ability for workers to seek impartial third-party arbitration when collective bargaining hits a dead end.

Hurley said these meeting are designed to talk to the local unions about legislation the Liberal government has already adopted in the school sector, has drafted — but not tabled yet — for the broader public sector; and about legislation the Progressive Conservatives had tabled in the last session of the legislature, but died on the order paper.

“From our point of view, we need to talk with our members about the fact the system of collective bargaining, to freely negotiate in sectors with the right to strike, is in jeopardy,” Hurley said. “We are really hoping we can politicize people; we can inform them about the nature of the legislative proposals coming from the Liberals and the Conservative parties, get them involved in lobbying, politicizing their membership, that we can organize them to push back.”

That message is one Heather Skolly said she feels is important for all members to hear. Skolly, president of London’s CUPE Local 7575, said the fight is against “an assault” on the idea of collective bargaining.

“We’ve had a negotiating process with our employer and that is how we come up with collective agreements. You give something to get something,” Skolly said. “The employer never sits at the table and says this is exactly how it is going to be and too bad, suck it up.”

Hurley agreed with Skolly that the biggest issue CUPE is trying to bring attention to is the attempt to “destroy” collective bargaining. It isn’t, Hurley said, about getting union members more money.

“Generally speaking, the public sector is responding with a wage freeze, that is — practically speaking — what is happening. What these legislative initiatives are designed for is much more than that,” Hurley said. “They aren’t simply imposing a wage freeze, they give the government the power to reject collective bargaining outcomes and impose their own solutions.”

Hurley also said the unions are already coming to agreements that are — on average — amounting to 0.6 per cent.

“We would argue that for all intents and purposes, a wage freeze is descending on the public sector,” Hurley said. “So they are giving themselves power here that is well beyond what they need. In giving themselves those powers, they have gone further than anyone else in Canada towards negating collective bargaining. So I would say these powers are unprecedented.”

Skolly called the attempt to “eliminate” collective bargaining is the vital issue, far more than simply installing a wage freeze.

“Way back in the beginning it was openly said a wage freeze isn’t the issue. This has gone deeper and further than a wage freeze,” Skolly said. “It is about rights being taken away. It is undemocratic; it isn’t what should be coming from our government.”

Skolly said Local 7575 is also fighting for recognition that their livelihood is also being affected by what the province is attempting to do. Local 7575 represents educational and instructional assistants in the Thames Valley District School Board.

The members, who work with the special needs students and support the teachers, are also side-by-side with teachers, rallying where they can, lobbying for and promoting the repealing of Bill 115.

The current mood in government, Skolly says, is to try and claw back the gains made by unions for decades — including safety in the workplace, the 40-hour work week, parental provisions, and others.

“It is basically taking away our democratic rights, something that was fought for years before us. To have a government just walk in and legislate something is just wrong,” Skolly said. “This isn’t just about the Liberals. The Conservatives supported it (Bill 115), but said the cut wasn’t deep enough, wasn’t wide enough. They wanted to take away even more. My comments have always been this was legislated by the Liberals and supported by the Tories. We won’t forget that.”