OPSEU told to send government message on wages, job security
By Caroline Mallan
Ontario's public service union will begin work this week on a campaign to convince its membership to hand it a strong strike mandate in a vote expected next month.
The Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), representing 48,000 provincial workers, is currently in bargaining with the Ontario government after their contract expired Dec. 31. The workers include those who plow snow, test psychiatric patients, inspect slaughterhouses and issue drivers licences.
Yesterday, the union formally announced it will go to the membership for a strike vote after it holds information meetings province-wide. The call for a strike vote comes while bargaining is ongoing.
OPSEU president Leah Casselman, who led her union onto the picket lines for five weeks in 1996, said she needs her members to back the bargaining unit in order to send a strong message to the government that they will not back down from demands for job security and wages.
``The government has made it clear that they intend to pick up where they left off in the last round of bargaining,'' Casselman said of the 1996 deal that sent her members back to work.
``The proposals that the employer has tabled with us are designed to make it easier for them to destroy the public service.''
Casselman said there are specific plans on the table to allow the government to lay people off for up to six months with just two weeks notice.
A spokesperson for Management Board Chair Chris Hodgson, who oversees the public service, said they prefer not to bargain in the media, but rather send their negotiators to the table in good faith.
``We feel that we've made a lot of progress at the table and we will continue to negotiate on the issues,'' said Hillary Stauth.
``Our over-all goal is to continue along the lines upon which we were elected - to create a smaller, more efficient government.''
Casselman said plans to further cut jobs in the public sector are the reason why her union may have to strike again. She said any more cuts will not be at her members' expense. It is estimated that by the time the government has finished cutting and contracting out government jobs, the civil service in Ontario will have shrunk by 30,000 positions.
``When this government was elected, OPSEU members in the public service were called upon to make a major sacrifice to pay off the provincial debt,'' she said. ``We made that sacrifice, the equivalent of 18,000 full-time jobs; we are not interested in making any more sacrifices for this government.''
Despite the union's latest move, any strike action could be months away. The union is still in the process of hammering out essential services agreements with the government that determine which workers - such as ambulance drivers - must stay on the job in the event of a strike.
Only when those issues are resolved and attempts at conciliation break down will the union be in a legal strike position.
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