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By Sid Ryan

Sometimes it’s more convenient to pen a cynical article that focuses on such trivia as who “blinked” than it is to delve into the complexities of a legitimate dispute between government and workers. But, contrary to the opinions expressed last week by my fellow Sun columnist  Christina Blizzard in these pages, CUPE members made significant gains in their recent campaign against the McGuinty government’s Bill 206.

Those gains in the way the OMERS pension plan will be governed came over a period of several weeks, not just in the final 36 hours of the dispute. The deal reached in the final hours before a midnight “political protest” deadline was designed to cement in legislation the principles CUPE had been fighting for since last summer.

The victories we achieved with our campaign included:
 winning  the right to negotiate pension benefit improvements at each local bargaining table in municipal and school board sector. This is a first in the history of the pension plan and will be backed up by the right to strike.
 eliminating the  cap on CUPE’s ability to negotiate future increases for our members;
 increased representation for CUPE on the committee charged with making pension plan improvements;
 a legislated guarantee that CUPE members will not have to pay for enhanced benefits for police and firefighters, and
 the ability to negotiate  enhanced pension plans for paramedics. Unfortunately, the Liberals refused to recognize paramedics’ true value by granting them the same pension conditions as police and firefighters, who can retire at age 60 in the basic plan.

Last but by no means least, the government has made a commitment to pass a special piece of legislation  — a CUPE Bill — that provides a means to challenge any unfairness built into Bill 206. This will include examining the difficulties CUPE encounters with the OMERS approval process when it attempts to negotiate enhanced benefits similar to police and firefighters for its 102,000 members in the OMERS pension plan. The CUPE Bill provides for an arms-length independent review of the entire governance model in Bill 206 and the fairness in how it treats different sets of workers as well as workers and employers.

The sum total of the gains made in our campaign is a credit to CUPE members, who were willing to stand their ground and fight for what is right.  They understood the significance of the campaign in terms of their future standard of living.

However, it was disheartening for everyone to hear the Premier place police and firefighters on a pedestal almost on a daily basis and at same time insinuate that CUPE members are less important in the delivery of public services. McGuinty constantly underscored this point by insisting that when police and firefighters “run into a building, everyone else runs out.”

Perhaps he has never seen a paramedic run into a building to save a life. Maybe he never heard of the contribution CUPE health care workers made during the SARS crisis when many of those brave souls contracted the dreaded virus in our hospitals. It just might be possible the Premier is oblivious to the serious risk to life our hydro workers endure every single day in order to keep our lights on. 

Far from running away from our responsibilities, CUPE members take great pride in how they deliver public services. It behooves the Premier of this province to recognize this fact and stop pitting one group of employees against the other.

I find it interesting how some in the media, like Blizzard and others, justify enhanced pensions and early retirement for police and firefighter because of the oft-times heavy lifting or takedowns required by both occupations. Surely, if heavy lifting or back-breaking work is the threshold for receiving an enhanced pension, then all those poor souls who pick up our garbage day in and day out for 35 years deserve to retire a little earlier.  And nursing homes employees who struggle to lift elderly residents on a daily basis also deserve to be able retire before age 65.

Insofar as Bill 206 is concerned, we have not heard the last about this pension legislation. CUPE will now be able to put “supplemental” pension improvements at every municipal and school board bargaining table across Ontario in the coming months. We will be paying special attention to those municipalities and regions where police and firefighters are seeking pension improvements. After all Dalton, what’s good for the goose is surely good for the gander.