Public servants prepare for fight with province

On the eve of contract talks, local public servants said Monday they are prepared to face off against the province to rebuild a crumbling public sector.
“There’s a crisis in Ontario and it’s not a financial crisis, it’s a public service crisis,” Bob Dakin, president of Ontario Public Service Employees Union Local 711, said at a press conference here Monday morning.
About 45,000 public service employees across the province, including 4,000 who work in Northwestern Ontario, began contract talks with the province yesterday in Toronto.
Their current three-year contract expires Dec. 31, and a team of negotiators is meeting with the government to negotiate a new collective agreement.
“After six-and-a-half years of cuts, layoffs, and privatization, it is now clear that we, as Ontarians, have no choice—we must rebuild the public sector,” Dakin argued.
OPSEU wants contract improvements in five areas: job classifications, cost of living, benefits, job security, and pensions. The union argues wages have declined 16 percent since 1994 because cost of living provisions haven’t kept up with inflation.
Dakin couldn’t say how much of a pay hike the union is seeking because various departments within the union, which represents everyone from environmental officers and safety inspectors to probation officers and social workers, were making their own demands.
Chris Bonner-Vickers represents members of Local 718 at the Fort Frances Jail.
“The jail is slated to close in 2004 and that’s going to put another 40 people out of work if we do close,” Bonner-Vickers said. “We’re hoping that we will have some sort of job security.”
Melissa Pearson is president of Local 735, which represents 50 people at the Ministry of Community and Social Services here. She said her members are looking for a sign the cuts and wage freezes are over.
“I think they’re frustrated,” she said. “We’re working backwards instead of forwards.”
Dakin said these contract talks come after six years of privatization that actually have cost the province more than retaining the public sector.
“Promoters for privatization say it provides better service at less cost to taxpayers [but] this is not what has happened in Ontario,” he charged.
“In many cases, private operators are charging the government two, three, four times what it would have cost to have accountable public employees to do the same work.”
He said the privatization of the province’s air ambulance service cost the province $2 million in severance pay—only to have the operator hire the same paramedics back.
More than just costing taxpayers more money, Dakin said privatizing health services in compromising the safety of Ontarians.
“The story of today’s public service is the story of a system that has broken down,” he said. “The Walkerton tragedy showed just how [far] the breakdown has occurred.”
Dakin said when the Ministry of Environment labs were privatized, the new operators were not required to contact public health units if they found samples of bad water as the public servants had, inferring that change in policy led to the E. coli disaster which killed seven people and sickened hundreds more.
In May, then Environment minister Dan Newman dismissed the idea the government’s downloading of responsibilities to municipalities played a role in the disaster since the municipality always had run the water treatment facility in Walkerton.
Dakin disagreed, saying that with the change, the municipalities no longer could afford to do all the testing that public servants had performed, nor did they have the expertise to do so.
“Public service . . . can no longer perform the range of services it needs to. It can no longer protect the public health and safety and interests,” he warned.
When asked how the province could afford a wage increase for OPSEU members, Dakin said the money is there.
The union pointed to the government cutting corporate taxes by $2.2 billion in the 2001 budget, or the $300 million the province plans to give parents with children in private schools.
“Today’s Ontario Public Service is broken down, weak, and fragmented,” Dakin stressed. “This round of bargaining is about rebuilding the public service by supporting the front-line workers who are its foundation.”
The union says it is too early to discuss strike dates. The last time OPSEU went on strike was for five weeks in 1996.