OPS Campaigns

Northern Ontario Crisis
 

Report to OPSEU members on cuts in the MNR

prepared by Dave Fluri, OPSEU mobiliser for MNR, MoE and Northern Issues

The Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) has undertaken the latest in a series of organizational changes that the Ontario government is calling “transformation”.  In reality, they are service cuts. The ministry’s cuts for 2012-2015 follow downsizing mandated by the 2010 and 2011 Ontario budgets.

The Historical Context

MNR is a ministry that is greatly dependent upon contract (fixed term) staff.  Fixed term employees have long been used for clearly seasonal tasks such as forest fire fighting and Ontario Parks summer staff.  In addition, though, the ministry also uses contract staff to cover short-term vacancies and project-type staffing needs.

In the mid-1990s, MNR comprised about 5,000 full-time staff.  In the  summer, that staffing complement would often swell to 7,500 or so.  Due to cuts under the Harris government, notably during the 1996-1997 fiscal year, most field offices saw staff cuts of 40 to 45 per cent.  The vast majority of these cuts were full time equivalents (FTEs) from the permanent staffing pool.

After the Conservatives were defeated, shortly after the turn of the century, staffing reductions continued but there was increased staffing at the regional and head office levels.

To illustrate this, I put out a press release in 2008, as part of the “Save the MNR” campaign, that detailed a total of a 70 per cent staffing reduction (since 1996) in local (district) MNR offices.  In response, when questioned by the media, the Minister’s Office indicated that, in total, there had been about a 1 per cent reduction in staff across the province.  The difference, of course, reflects the increased staffing regionally and provincially as well as a good deal of “creative accounting”.  Management often “fudges the numbers” by including contract staff among the FTE counts for certain purposes and not for others.

The result of this shift in staff from the “field level” to the regional and provincial levels resulted in large-scale demoralisation of staff.

More Recent Changes

Roughly by the start of this decade, the MNR staffing complement was about 3,500 FTEs with some 800 to 1100 seasonal staff, depending largely on the severity of the fire season.

In the 2009 budget, Finance Minister Dwight Duncan announced the reduction of the public service by five per cent, or 3,400 jobs, over the next three years.  This apparently worked out to a cut of 188 positions at MNR. The Ministry eliminated vacancies rather than lay off employees. However, this permanent cut to staffing created huge workload issues for the remaining employees.  These staff cuts were required to be completed by March 31, 2012 and it appears they have been. OPSEU’s records show that there were fewer than a half dozen surplus notices issued in MNR for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2012.

In the 2011 Ontario Budget, the Finance Minister, Dwight Duncan, announced a further reduction of 1500 FTEs across the public service.  We’ve never received an adequate explanation of what MNR’s share of this reduction might be but, based on general mathematical principles, it would, presumably, work out to somewhere around 80 or 90 positions.  At the Ministry Enforcement and Renewal Committee (MERC) table, we were assured that this level of reduction would still be possible without surplus notices.  The annual turnover in staff, through resignations and retirements, was averaging, at that point, 95 to 120 staff per year.  Management assured us that this latest reduction would be accomplished without layoffs and, to their credit, they seem to have, largely, made this happen.  According to the government’s agenda, these reductions were to be completed by March 31, 2013.  To complete this task, the last group of surplus notices were sent out at the end of September 2012, just past.  Those notices totalled about 120 seasonal positions, largely in parks and the Ontario Ranger program, and about two dozen permanent staff.  The Ontario Ranger program was completely eliminated.  Prior notice had been given, in the spring, of about 22 positions eliminated from the Bear-Wise program, that were entirely seasonal in nature.  About 11 of those Bear-Wise positions were actually occupied.

It should be noted that the recently-announced reduction of some 150 seasonal and permanent staff is a mixture of the 1,500 OPS positions announced in 2011 and the beginnings of the 2012-2015 Transformation initiative (below).

As it stands, today, the MNR complement is approximately 2,900 to 3,000 FTEs.

Intentions of Further Reductions

In the 2012 Ontario Budget, further reductions to the MNR budget were announced.  This latest round has been come to be called Transformation although, to be fair, that word has been bandied about for some years, now.

What do we know about the government’s plans, at this point?

The situation is rather murky.  What we have been told is that the MNR budget, currently under 0.5 per cent of the provincial budget, will be reduced by at least $50 million plus 3 to 5 per cent per year for each of the next three years, a total of another $20 million.  The $50 million portion of that reduction reflects MNR’s deemed “overspending” over the last several years.  A good deal of that “overspending” has been caused by above-average years of forest-fire suppression needs, an area that is notoriously difficult to predict and that is, at least partly, influenced by climate change.  As a result, other programs are now required to take a hit because of chronic underfunding of fire suppression.

Nonetheless, what has been announced by the Deputy Minister is that the reductions will be fully implemented by March 31, 2015.  When questioned on the potential role of attrition in covering these reductions, the Deputy replied that the anticipated attrition by 2015 would be 550 employees but that that “would not be enough”.  Management has assured us that that does not mean that the reduction will be 550 or more staff, but that “organisational realities” mean that hiring will continue even though staff will be surplussed.  It’s a little like reading tea leaves but it appears certain that there will be hundreds more FTEs eliminated by the end of the 2015 fiscal year.

The model for the new organisation, apparently, is for fewer field (district) offices, with more services being delivered at the regional and provincial levels.  We were told that the ministry could not be sure how all this would shake out and that employees were encouraged to apply for positions at the regional and provincial offices.  The employer says that “staffing up” will largely be completed at the regional and provincial levels before real downsizing begins at the field level.

In summary, again, the reduction of about 150 staff that was announced in September, 2012 is a composite of the 80 to 90 staff from the 2011 budget announcement and the further $70 million that is anticipated under the Transformation initiative.  These staffing numbers apply strictly to this fiscal year.  There are likely hundreds more staff reductions to come before March 2015.

Conclusion

What all of this amounts to is that there is a good deal of angst among staff, mainly at the district (field) level.  Our members have already been challenged by significant workload increases.  It’s exceedingly unclear how the MNR organisational structure might shake out over the next few years.  The story from management is, basically, that we should “stay calm” and “full speed ahead”.

What does this mean for us, in terms of mobilising for a new collective agreement?

What we need to do, I think, is to remember that we are stronger together than we are separately.  Our bargaining teams are aware of the importance of solid job security language and only through strong job security language will we be able to ensure that our members are effectively protected from undue hardship and are aided in transitioning to other circumstances, should the need so arise.  The teams have assured us that improvements to the language in Article 20, among others, will be a major focus of OPSEU’s position.

In addition, a subcommittee of your MERC has been meeting with the employer in an effort to negotiate ways to mitigate the impact of staffing cuts already announced or planned for the next couple of years.  Although those discussions are delicate and, consequently, are confidential at this stage, every effort is being made to ensure that staff are affected as little as possible.  One of the results that the committee has already negotiated is the recently-announced improvements to the voluntary exit option (VEO) provisions offered by the employer.  The OPSEU members of the sub-committee remain committed to working with the bargaining team to secure the best possible deal for MNR staff and staff across the OPS.

Immediate actions

What we need to do, as workers, is to signal our support for the bargaining teams.  The employer is monitoring and is required to report on union activity in the workplace.  We can enhance our chances of negotiating a good collective agreement by taking action.

OPSEU has available for sale lanyards and desk flags.  We should all consider wearing an OPSEU lanyard at work, each day, and placing a flag on our desk.  If you talk to your chief steward or local president, these items can be ordered from the OPSEU website.  In addition, consider organising a gathering at coffee break or a barbecue at lunch time.  Engage you fellow members in discussions of the bargaining environment.  Print off copies of the employer’s opening offer and provide copies to co-workers.  Ensure that copies are posted on the union bulletin boards.  Invite an OPSEU mobiliser to come talk to members at coffee break or to attend your next local meeting.

Contact

If you should require further information or if you wish to have a secure (non-government) email address added to our distribution list, feel free to contact me or any of your MERC team members.  

Dave Fluri
OPSEU mobiliser for MNR, MoE and Northern issues. dave.fluri@onlink.net

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