Members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) held a car rally Monday, protesting the lack of movement in contract negotiations on the part of their employer, the Region of Waterloo (ROW). After being left without a contract for over 15 months, the action foreshadows a possible legal strike action on Saturday.

Members of CUPE Local 5191 and CUPE Local 1883 gathered their cars for the drive-by rally at the ROW Administrative Headquarters. They drove around the block several times, honking their horns and waving their flags. The unions have raised concerns over high workloads, job security and mental health — issues exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic. The two unions represent approximately 1,200 workers in the public sector.

A representative from CUPE Ontario even brought a cargo van loaded with loudspeakers, blaring their message to the region: respect their workers. In-between messages, they played songs like Get Up, Stand Up by Bob Marley, and Won’t Back Down by Tom Petty.

Noelle Fletcher is the president of CUPE 1883, which represents workers in daycare, public health, social services, admin, planning, finance and library workers. She said they’ve had eight bargaining dates with the region before it called for a federal conciliation officer for help, following April 13 negotiations.

“We actually thought that day was going fairly well.” Fletcher  said. “So, we were surprised that they filed for conciliation at the end of that date.”

Fletcher said the delay was related to the wording around job security in the contract negotiations. They haven’t even touched on monetary issues, which would concern funding better mental health benefits.

“Right now, the amount that members get would be about equivalent to maybe three sessions with a psychologist, psychiatrist or social worker,” she said.

The lack of movement on contract talks led to 90 percent of union membership voting in favour of strike action. CUPE 1883 filed for No-Board with the Ministry of Labour, which would place them in legal strike position by June 24. Picket lines have already been scheduled, Fletcher noted. This would also be the first strike action the union has ever undertaken in its history, unless a deal is reached.

The last time a regional workers union went on strike was last year in late January. The union representing Grand River Transit and MobilityPLUS operators, Unifor Local 4304, had initially reached a deal with the region, but it failed to pass a ratifying vote by members. Bus services were halted as union members raised the picket line; also a first for the transit service since it was formed in 2000. It took nine days before a tentative agreement was reached and ratified.

The transit union had been raising issues around driver safety; lower wages earned by part-timers doing the same work as full-timers; yearly wage increases; and heavy-handed discipline through the use of surveillance cameras.

These issues have also been echoed by other workers on the front line. Essential workers who have been called “heroes” throughout the pandemic — like nurses and grocery workers — have also been calling for better wages and workplace standards. Many grocery retailers offered pay increases during the beginning of the pandemic, only to face backlash when they chose to end it weeks later. The Ford Government has said it would commit to keep pay increases for personal support workers, but hasn’t released much details on it at this time.

(CUPE 1883 member Bonnie Cobb waving her flag to passing cars. Phi Doan/insideWaterloo)

“I think it speaks volumes that you have a membership as big as our membership, and we have over 90% that are supporting us wanting to strike,” said Bonnie Cobb, CUPE 1883’s grievance chair. “I’ve members calling me daily wanting to strike, even if we settle. They want to strike, just to show management that they want to be heard because they’re not being heard, they’re not being respected.”

Before being laid off, Cobb worked as the region’s internal review and appeals specialist for 30 years. She and 14 others were laid off at a five-minute meeting back in January.  Cobb said that despite being laid off her job was still there, with duties merely divided across six other positions within the region. She said that those same people ended up reaching out to her for advice on how to do her job: to ensure her clients’ quality of life by making sure they received the right amount of assistance, and avoiding over-payments.

Cobb’s situation was not an isolated instance. The union has accused the region of eliminating full-time jobs and increasing the number of temporary positions instead. Cobb said they could have saved these positions, if only the region worked with them. According to her, at least 14 people have retired since, which meant there was extra money.

“They’ve been offering voluntary exit packages to management, and then they turn around and they hire them all back. So, they say they have no money, but it’s very confusing, because there has to be money, because the money keeps coming to the senior management, but certainly not to the members of 1883.”

(Alex Manson, a local paramedic, waves to a fellow CUPE member as they drive by the rally location. Phi Doan/insideWaterloo)

(Alex Manson, a local paramedic, waves to a fellow CUPE member as they drive by the rally location. Phi Doan/insideWaterloo)

Alex Manson also attended the rally that day. He had been a paramedic for 30 years and spent the last 20 working for the region. He is an executive member of CUPE Local 5191, which represents around 300 members, which includes paramedics and the logistics and support workers who support paramedics.

It didn’t need to get to this point, but Manson said they aren’t being given many options left. CUPE 5191 has identified the primary issues they’ve been dealing with are around retention. More than 20 paramedics quit the workforce last year. According to Manson, those workers have moved on to work in other municipalities.

“We’re one of the lowest paid compensated paramedics in the province. We have one of the highest workloads, the Region of Waterloo, takes pride in running a lean paramedic service. And the problem is it’s leading to fatigue, and to some burnout of the paramedics,” he said. This has been an ongoing problem for a number of years, according to Manson. Another sticking point, Manson said, was that the region wanted to eliminate “job share” positions which allow two paramedics to work the equivalent of one full-time position, something they consider vital for a proper work-life balance.

While the region could be commended for some of its early support in providing PPE during the pandemic, that didn’t excuse the lack of movement on contract talks.

“The administration and corporate leadership was working from home and we roll through the pandemic, with no excuse for delays to our contracts,” he said. “We could have been managing this all along the way with meetings, we were willing and ready to negotiate, and we understand some of the challenges early in the pandemic, but it’s just too long at this point.”

Should CUPE 5191 go on strike, we can expect to see limited service from the paramedics in compliance with the Essential Ambulance Services Agreement (EASA). No further details for now.

Following the car rally several union members gathered in front of the ROW administrative building, with speakers taking turns at the microphone. Members cried out “shame!” for the region’s lack of movement and transparency. CUPE Ontario President Fred Hahn spoke to the members, and said that they had the support of the entire organization.

“We deserve respect – and by God, if it means we have to withdraw our labour to get it then that is what we are going to do,” Hahn said. “It doesn’t have to be that way. They can come back to the table and fire their lawyer who’s there to try and intimidate workers. They can do that today.”

After the rally, CUPE Ontario blared one more rallying cry at the region with their loudspeakers: The Imperial March from Star Wars.

The region provided this statement to insideWaterloo in regards to negotiations:

The Region of Waterloo values the work of all staff who provide critical services on a daily basis to the 630,000 residents in the region. We have productive and professional relationships with bargaining units and these relationships are essential in delivering these critical services. Negotiations are ongoing with both CUPE 1883 and CUPE 5191 throughout the week with CUPE 1883 negotiations taking place today. We continue to remain hopeful that agreements can be reached.

In the event of a disruption, the Region of Waterloo has contingency plans in place to ensure essential services can continue. All regional services that can safely operate to serve local residents will continue in the event of a labour disruption. Regional buildings will remain open to the public.

The region has also noted in another release that should a strike occur, regionally operated child care centres will have to close.

(A CUPE member waving flags at the rally. Phi Doan/insideWaterloo)

Monday’s bargaining goes south

Following the rally, CUPE Local 1883 went back to the bargaining table again. It did not go well. Job security was still a major sticking point, but the region decided to push the union around, according to Fletcher. She said the region told the union it would not be continuing benefits for members should the strike proceed. Fletcher said the cost of continuing benefits would have been reimbursed by CUPE National including the premiums.

Fletcher said CUPE were prepared to cover any emergency benefits during the strike. She noted that several of their members require life-saving medicine.

“We will make sure that people are not without medications,” she said.

Another slap in the face involved keeping some of their members — who were temporarily out of the union —  in management roles. Members could leave their unions on a temporary basis to take contract jobs, but their union position is still held until they return.

“Normally what is done is those people return to the bargaining unit, during the duration of a strike, so those people are not put in a position to have to decide to cross the picket lines or not. So they put 16 people in a position of being scab labor,” she said. In her eyes, the region was looking to divide and pit members against each other in the event of a strike.

The region also reportedly asked that the strike be delayed to give them time to prepare, despite the fact that CUPE 1883 announced this earlier this month on July 3. Meanwhile, in a release, the region claims it does have “contingency plans in place to ensure essential services continue.”

“They have not done anything to ensure that they’re prepared for this,” Fletcher said. “That is not our fault. That is very typical of the region.”

CUPE 1883’s next and last bargaining day is Friday, while the region continues to bargain with CUPE 5191 on Tuesday and Thursday. While Fletcher said that CUPE members want to avoid a strike, after Monday’s negotiations, it feels like they’re another step closer to the picket line.

“I feel sick. I don’t even know what to say, but I just feel sick about the whole thing,” she said.