By JULIUS ARSCOTT
Vice president, OPSEU Local 532
The 38,000 members of the Ontario public service are entering a new round of bargaining this fall, amidst a wave of labour concessions across both the private and public sectors. The Ontario Public Service Employees’ Union (OPSEU), the largest public sector union in the province, is readying itself.
The employer is expected to demand severe concessions. Wages, sick leave, benefits, pensions, and job security could be on the chopping block. Attacks on pensions may come in the form of legislation to change current “defined pensions” into pooled investment schemes. Many members have been declared “surplus” (3400 positions have already been cut).
The cuts have affected the reliability and quality of public services in the province, and have taken a toll on the popularity of the governing Liberal party. Premier Dalton McGuinty, in his spring budget, demanded major concessions to balance the books at the expense of public services, and threatened to privatize ServiceOntario (which provides drivers’ licenses, birth certificates, etc., for a fee).
OPSEU members need protection for jobs, pensions, wages, and benefits—not privatization. The OPS is also bargaining at the same time as the liquor board employees’ division and the community college teachers (CAAT Academic).
McGuinty is expected to use dirty tricks to divide public sector workers. In bargaining with the supervisory workers’ group AMAPCEO, McGuinty tabled rollbacks on job security, insured health benefits, reductions to sick leave entitlements, and the elimination of compensation option credit days, coupled with a four-year freeze on salary, no merit or pay for performance adjustments, and permanent elimination of P4P.
This will likely be the most difficult round of bargaining in the union’s history. Increasingly it looks like AMAPCEO may go on strike for the first time.
OPSEU President Smokey Thomas has advised members to prepare for a possible strike by paying down debts, delaying major purchases, and saving up some money. A good way to avoid a strike is to be well prepared for one. Education is key, and so is leadership.
What can be said about the education and preparation of the membership by the union leadership? Since this could be the most important bargaining since the ultra-right-wing Tory Mike Harris days of the mid-90’s, the union will require a higher level of militancy. It requires the building of relationships with the rest of the labour movement, particularly to build towards an unlimited general strike to challenge the broad anti-worker agenda underway.
While not officially affiliated with the New Democratic Party, OPSEU is supporting the NDP candidate in the upcoming provincial by-election in Kitchener-Waterloo, 90 minutes west of Toronto. A Liberal victory would give McGuinty a majority of seats in the Ontario Legislature.
We can imagine what he would do to public services and working people in general with that majority. OPSEU needs to help forge a working-class united front by affiliating to the New Democratic Party and by driving NDP policy towards a Workers’ Agenda.