Feelings mixed as strikers return to work

The placards are in trash cans and strike headquarters may be empty, but thousands of Ontario public service workers were hardly whistling as they returned to work Monday.
“I’m not happy with it,” said Rachel Hill, a senior technician with the Ministry of Natural Resources here just before she voted on the government’s latest contract offer Saturday.
“I guess the big thing is the wage increase. I don’t feel we got much there,” she added.
Hill was one of about 4,500 Ontario Public Service Employees Union members from Northwestern Ontario who went back to work Monday after being on strike for more than seven weeks.
Only half of the eligible members across the province turned out to vote on the tentative agreement reached last Thursday, which offered an 8.45 percent raise over three years for all employees, with an additional one percent pay-for-performance for those at the top of their pay scale.
Of those who voted, 78 percent agreed to accept the deal.
For many of the local picketers, concerns over how to pay the bills were the deciding factor in how they voted.
“Both [my husband and I] work for OPSEU so we had no income for two months,” Hill noted. “We lost $6,000 for two months and it has a big impact. It set us back quite a bit.
“The wage increase is compensating for what we lost, there’s no real gain here.”
Fellow MNR technician Janet Fedoruk was equally unimpressed with the contract.
“I don’t like it. I think that MNR was lost in the scope of the union,” she said, pointing to the additional wage increases given to correctional officers, medical and chemical laboratory technologists, and classroom assistants and school aides in provincial schools.
Fedoruk said the province used a divide-and-conquer strategy, giving increases to a small percentage of the union while leaving the remainder out.
“I don’t think MNR was represented enough,” she charged.
Tony Elders, also with the MNR here, had mixed feelings about the contract.
“I think it’s not bad. We achieved 50 percent of what I was looking for out of the contract,” he said just after voting Saturday. “We have been out for eight weeks. I’ve lost 15 percent of my income for this year.
“A lot are upset because they’ve been out for eight weeks and expected to get more than what they got,” admitted Melissa Pearson, president of OPSEU Local #735 here.
“I hoped it would be better. I was happy with the raise but we lose that in the benefits department and you end up at square one,” she argued.
Bob Dakin, president of OPSEU Local #711 here, agreed many of those who voted to ratify the contract were less than pleased with what they saw.
“A lot of people held their noses and voted,” he remarked Monday morning before heading back to work at the MNR office here.
Still, Dakin felt the strike definitely was effective.
“Yes. We kept control over the pension fund, that’s a big part of it,” he stressed. “The wage settlement is not exactly what we were after but it’s a start. We retained some of the benefits.”
OPSEU president Leah Casselman also said the strike was worth it.
“We defended our pension rights and the OPSEU Pension Trust, we made progress for contract and part-time workers, and we made a big step towards recovering the wages we’ve lost over the last decade,” she said in a press release.
“We are a force to be reckoned with.”
Meanwhile, Management Board spokeswoman Julie Rosenberg said the government was pleased the contract was ratified. “The government looks forward to restoring full services as soon as possible,” she said Sunday.
But Rosenberg acknowledged there were a few hurtles the province and union had to overcome before putting the strike behind them, such as the mountain of paperwork that has accumulated since the walkout began March 13.
“Many public offices will be on a reduced schedule this week in order to allow staff to deal with the backlog,” she noted.
As well, the province has announced all driver’s licences, motor vehicle permits, etc. that expired after March 13 would be extended until August 2. This is just one of the measures to help workers cope with the backlog.
Rosenberg advised people to call ahead or check the Internet before accessing these services.
Dakin said he was looking forward to moving past the strike. “It has been a long eight weeks and I think people are happy it’s over,” he added.
If nothing else, Hill added she was happy to leave the picket line behind.
“I’m glad to be going back to work,” she said. “I like my job a lot.”