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2018 Pre-Budget remarks by OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas

2018 Pre-Budget remarks by OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas

We the North
We the North
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Good morning. I’m Smokey Thomas, President of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union. With me today is Clarke Eaton, Special Assistant to the President.

Thank you for the chance to speak to you today on behalf of the over 130,000 members of OPSEU.

I have appeared before this committee to talk about the provincial budget every year for more than a decade.

The budget directly affects my members and the decisions in it make a big difference in how they do their jobs.

Since our members deliver the public services Ontarians rely on, they have the inside track on what is working and what needs to be fixed.

Right now a lot of repair work is needed to clean things up.

That clean up comes with a price tag, but it’s a price Ontarians want their government to pay so we wipe out the social deficit we’re running.

Privatization

One thing our members and Ontarians have brought up to me time and time again is this government’s obsession with privatization and contracting out.

It has been a disaster on so many levels.  Privatization is like a weed that is choking the carefully tended garden of public services that we’ve worked so hard on.  Here are a couple of examples:

Privatization has been offered as a solution to this government’s short changing of health care, but Ontarians are paying a high price.

More and more we’re seeing patients and their families being forced to reach for their wallet when they go to a private clinic, or get home care services or long-term care.

And more and more people are having trouble getting timely and targeted health care services.

Part of the reason many of our roads are more nerve wracking to drive on this winter has been the privatization of road maintenance.

This week’s news of the collapse of Carillion is just the latest in a string of privatization failures.

It’s time to put highway maintenance back into public hands.

And have you been to a ServiceOntario office lately?  Most of them have been contracted out to private providers.

Some days you can go to one of these privately run offices and the line ups look like something you’d find at the meat counter of a supermarket on a busy Saturday morning, take a number.  And you can’t get the kind of services that you can in a publicly run centre.

Speaking of supermarkets, they stick to selling groceries not beer and liquor.

This attempted privatization by stealth experiment of selling booze in grocery stores has been an utter failure.

LCBO outlets are the best places to sell spirits.

And while we applaud the government’s decision to sell cannabis in public stores, it’s time to speed up the opening of more stores in order to reduce the illegal cannabis market.

Lets go with the facts rather than politics when we offer public services.

Here’s a couple of facts you can think about:

OPSEU is the major supporter of a campaign to stop privatization called “We Own It.” There has been a flood of folks signing on to it, 50-thousand and counting. 

And the last poll I saw showed support for privatization is now less than a third.

Ontarians are fed up. It’s time to stop privatization dead in its tracks.

We’re calling for the government to stop any further sell off of public assets and to take a long hard look at the ones that have been approved.

Health Care

I want to come back to health care, because it is a top priority for Ontarians but the provincial government should hang its head in shame at its chronic underfunding.

Ontario has the largest population of any province.  We should be leading the pack in terms of health funding.  But in terms of dollars funding per person, Ontario is last among the provinces.

In last year’s budget the overall increase was about three per cent, well below what was needed.

A couple of years back when Kathleen Wynne was trying to get more money out of the federal government, she said a three per cent increase, “is not going to cut it.”  

Well it’s also not going to cut it for her government’s budget.

We’re still hearing about overcrowding in our hospitals and patients being treated in the hallways.

That’s just one example of the result of underfunding in health, there’s lots more.

Corrections

I want to turn to another crisis that’s brewing in Ontario, the one in our province’s correctional institutions.  It’s a crisis that is out of sight for most of us, but all anyone has to do is talk to one of our members and they’ll be alarmed at what is going on behind the walls of our institutions.

A couple of expert reports released last year have confirmed what we have been saying all along:  Ontario’s correctional system is broken and needs to be fixed.

But the government must talk to those who are on the front lines protecting Ontarians to find out what needs to be done to fix it.

First of all the front lines need more correctional officers.   There are more lockdowns, more assaults on staff, and more violence between offenders.

I know that if any Ontarian spent a day walking around an institution with one of our members, they’d come out saying ‘whatever we’re paying them, it isn’t enough.’

We need to hire more staff to make sure that Ontarians stay safe.

Look at the Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre where at least 11 inmates have died since 2009.  There were five last year and already one this month.

 We also need to up the ante to ensure the facilities and health care services are there to provide proper mental health care to inmates and deal with addiction problems.  These problems affect half the adult offenders who are behind bars.

Overcrowding continues to be a problem in our institutions — one inmate per cell is a basic principle that should be followed both in terms of safety and human rights.

And there are also problems outside our institutions as well. 

Probation and parole officers have serious workload issues and it’s impossible to meet government standards for things like community supervision and parole reviews of incarcerated offenders.

There is no ‘get out of jail free’ card for solving the problems in Corrections.  We can’t only think about the dollar sign when it comes to keeping Ontarians safe.

Public Service

Our hard working members in the Ontario public service have a couple of concerns that need to be addressed once and for all.

The freeze on wage grid classifications has been an irritant for too long.

And it’s time for the government to lift the moratorium on grieving job reclassifications that are a hangover from the Harris years.  It’s time to let the Grievance Settlement Board make those impartial determinations.

Social Services

Underfunding also continues to be a problem for children’s and social services.  Significant investments are needed.

First of all two million Ontarians living in appalling poverty continue to have to fight to survive. Further increases to social assistance payments are needed.

Publicly run developmental services agencies with the experience and expertise continue to be short changed while $677-million is being spent on the Passport program that will lead to less predictable outcomes.

Workers with the province’s Children’s Aid Societies face daunting workloads and constant health and safety concerns.

More than half of our child protection agencies were in the red last year and crushing workloads are making it hard for child welfare workers to meet mandated provincial standards.

There is also the reality of 18 month waiting lists for some of the more than 12-thousand children and youth needing mental health support. I’m sure we all agree that is totally unacceptable.

Technology

I want to briefly touch on providing services online.  Of course OPSEU members realize that such services are the way of the future and we are always ready to embrace change, but smart change.

Technological advances can be a good thing, but they can’t replace the tens of thousands of dedicated and caring public servants who day in and day out provide the personal touch to folks who need help.

The disaster with the province’s SAMS social assistance software and the mess created by the Phoenix pay system show why we need to end outsourcing and stick with tried and proven internal systems.

Our members keep the wheels turning in Ontario.  Technological advances should be the tools, not the replacements.

Bill 148

We’re keeping tabs on Bill 148 and how it changes the landscape of workplace rights in the province. OPSEU is a leader in the fight for fairness in the workplace.

We welcome many of the enhancements contained in the legislation such as the minimum wage, changes to make unionization easier for some workers and the requirement for employers to provide “equal pay for equal work.”

We’ve been watching with some concern about how some private sector employers have treated vulnerable workers who got the minimum wage increase this year.

We want to make sure the government is going to provide public sector employers with sufficient funding to ensure compliance with Bill 148.

If the government wants improved employment standards in Ontario, workers should not be the ones footing the bill.

Central Bargaining

Currently, there are no provisions in the Labour Relations Act to facilitate broader-based bargaining structures and/or sectoral or “central” bargaining.

That is something that is needed, especially where we have small employers, fragmented sectors and precarious work.

The result will be fewer costly labour disruptions and significant cost savings through the centralization of resources.

OPSEU would like to see more central bargaining. But to make that happen, government needs to get away from funding agencies on an annual basis and move to stable, longer term funding.

Colleges

We’ve come through a tough year in Ontario’s colleges, because of the employer’s inflexible attitude that forced our members to go on strike last year.

Many of the issues surrounding that strike haven’t gone away.

Years of government underfunding has created a situation where Ontario ranks last of all ten provinces in funding per-student. 

In 2015-16, government grants accounted for less than half of the colleges’ revenue.

Tuition fees contributed 20 per cent of revenue and the balance came from classroom and ancillary fees paid by students.

Government underfunding has pushed colleges into questionable ventures with private colleges, corporations, overseas campuses, and contracting-out of services.

At the root of the problem is pressure from government for the colleges to run like a for-profit business.

Underfunding has also resulted in the colleges’ relying heavily on a cheap labour strategy on part-time support staff and contract faculty.

It has created a precarious workforce, but we’re working to change that.

Historic organizing drives for support staff and contract faculty were held and the largest union organizing drive in Canadian history has resulted in roughly 20-thousand college part-time support staff overwhelmingly voting to join OPSEU.

This has been a 14-year struggle on behalf of precarious workers who have little or no job security. It’s taken a concerted campaign by OPSEU to persuade the province to amend the Colleges Collective Bargaining Act to grant them the right to unionize.

But the employer’s costly legal manoeuvres continue to hold up the counting of ballots cast in the representation vote of part-time contract faculty.

Fairness for contract faculty was a major issue in last year’s strike with the union’s call for better jobs receiving strong public support.

We want the government to force this employer to withdraw its objections and allow for the counting of the ballots.

You, as members of the committee, are responsible for holding the government accountable. We would be pleased to take your questions.

Related

Press Release:  OPSEU’s Thomas to budget committee: ‘Fix the social deficit’

Read the Pre-budget submission to the Standing Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs