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OPSEU submissions to ‘sham’ wage consultations

OPSEU submissions to ‘sham’ wage consultations

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Over the past two weeks, OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas and First Vice-President / Treasurer Eduardo (Eddy) Almeida have been telling the Ford government loud and clear: members’ bargained wages and working conditions are not up for reneogotiation.

In a series of meetings that Thomas calls “sham consultations,” high-priced Toronto lawyers have asked Thomas and Almeida to comment on the government’s suggestion that frontline workers voluntarily accept concessions or wage caps.

“Let me make one vital point clear from the start: we fundamentally disagree with any plan – or any discussion on a plan  to cap public sector wages,” Thomas told the lawyers repeatedly, adding that “none of our existing contracts, and I repeat NONE, are open for renegotiation. Period. There will be no further discussion on that point.”

Thomas said the real reason for the consultations is clear: to give government the ability to claim it “consulted” with unions if it tries to strip workers’ Charter right to free and fair collective bargaining.

Instead, Thomas and Almeida urged the government to address the real problem, which is a lack of revenue. Decades of tax cuts for the wealthy have left Ontario’s public services the lowest funded in Canada. It’s time for the wealthy to contribute more.

There were a number of these sessions, broken up by sector. Below, you’ll find the speaking notes Thomas and Almeida delivered during the April 26 session covering all OPSEU members, and the May 3 session covering training, colleges, and universities.

Dedicated organization session  

I’m here today on behalf of OPSEU’s Executive Board and 155-thousand members who work in the Ontario Public Service, across the entire Broader Public Service and the Colleges sector. 

Let me start by saying the entire premise of these sessions is a sham. You’re starting with an attack against public sector workers, but you want our “input”?  We are greatly disappointed that the Ford government insulted frontline workers by not sending a single cabinet minister to Wednesday’s session on education.   

This shows complete contempt for workers who tirelessly provide public services that Ontarians rely on every day.  Ontario public servants deserve better than being pawned off on a bunch of high priced Toronto lawyers. 

Let me make one vital point clear from the start: we fundamentally disagree with any plan – or any discussion on a plan – to cap public sector wages. This flawed strategy won’t fix anything.  

The Charter of Rights and Freedoms confirms the right to free collective bargaining. That’s not up for debate or discussion, and this session does not fulfil your Charter obligations. You’ve invited us here today, and we came to make that clear. 

You’ve given us little to no information, except a few questions with very little context about the direction you’re planning to go. This makes it difficult to provide answers or to have any kind of meaningful discussion. 

More cuts aren’t the answer. Public sector spending didn’t cause our so-called financial crisis. Corporate tax cuts and privatization did that. It’s why these sessions would be laughable, if they weren’t so deeply offensive. Our members who work on the frontlines deserve every penny they earn; they work hard every day to keep this province running, and they have the right to free collective bargaining. Their rights can’t be “consulted away,” so shame on you for even suggesting it.

That means that all existing contracts are NOT, and I repeat absolutely NOT open for renegotiation. Period. There will be no further discussion on that point. 

Our members have put up with enough. We’ve had 25 years of austerity, from Rae’s Social Contract, to Harris’s wrecking ball, to McGuinty’s zeros, to Wynne’s compensation freeze. Since 2009, average annual base wage increases for public sector settlements have remained below both private sector settlements and the Consumer Price Index. Our members’ have gained only modest wage increases.  

We’ve been asked to take hits but we’ve watched successive government’s waste billions on privatization schemes like P3s, tax cuts for the wealthy, and tiers of management. No more. The jig is up. Ontario’s deficit cannot and will not be balanced on the backs of public sector workers and the public services they deliver. So instead of coming after our members and their Charter rights, focus on cleaning up our tax system and ending privatization.   

Our hardworking members deserve their wages. And good jobs are good for the economy too. According to a report by the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, the main driver of growth – along with housing – is consumer spending. In other words, if people don’t have income, growth is stunted. It’s why the government should support wages that sustain spending and spur economic growth. Modest increases in wages could easily be offset by increased corporate taxes. It’s time for corporations and the wealthiest to start paying their fair share.   

Governments have let down frontline workers for too long:

The Ontario Public Service has been understaffed for too long, unfilled positions are effectively a job cut, our members in the OPS are stretched too thin and are burning themselves out trying to maintain service levels.  There are significant cuts to many of the ministry budgets and most of the ones that actually received increases aren’t getting enough funding to keep up with inflation. 

Despite flowery promises this government has not done a thing to address the Crisis in Corrections.  It’s despicable that there wasn’t meaningful investment in the budget to address staffing shortages, crumbling infrastructure and inadequate training, and those are just for starters.  

This government’s health care restructuring is a train wreck waiting to happen.  Replacing a bunch of Liberal appointees with Conservative ones will not help patients or reduce waiting lists or improve the quality of health care. 

And the government’s plans to merge and privatize ambulance services and ambulance communications centres is very troubling.  It’s just irresponsible to cut corners where people’s lives are concerned.  Have Conservatives forgotten Walkerton?

Tying our Colleges and Universities to performance outcomes is a wrongheaded approach, public education should be a right not a business. And the government’s changes to tuition and OSAP cuts will snatch post-secondary education out of the hands of many students. 

Reinstate the College Task Force and let it finish its work and give the colleges a good swift kick and tell them stop blocking part-time faculty from being able to take advantage of their constitutional right to join a union.   

We talked about the rest of the education system during Wednesday’s so-called consultation session, again I have to stress that the government’s education funding cuts are going to mean the most vulnerable students are going to fall through the cracks.  

I want to turn to protecting our children.  Many Children’s Aid Societies are in deficit positions, there simply can’t be any layoffs, in fact we need more child protection workers. 

And children’s treatment programs are badly in need of investment.  We have a situation where children who need mental health services are either being left in hospital emergency waiting rooms or in youth detention facilities.  This is not an acceptable situation.

You’re playing with fire with this foolish move toward selling beer and wine in convenience stores, the LCBO is tried and true and has provided important revenue for health and education and other programs.  It ain’t broke, why are you trying to wreck something that works?

Hefty cuts to legal aid will be catastrophic to people who can’t afford to get any sort of fairness from the justice system on their own.  Eliminating funding for services for refugees and immigrants is heartless and doesn’t jibe with our multicultural society.

Revenue, Revenue, Revenue

It’s time that this government accept the practical solution: Fix Ontario’s revenue problem! You want performance outcomes when it comes to funding social programs; what about performance outcomes when it comes to corporate tax cuts? Taxpayers deserve to know exactly what they’re getting, or not getting, when their government doles out tax handouts.

Your approach isn’t working. And there’s not much expert agreement on it either.  

Take the latest report from the  Financial Accountability Office of Ontario:  

Ontario’s program spending is the lowest in Canada, and since 2011 program spending has grown at less than half the rate of other provinces – which means the spending gap is widening;

  • Ontario spends the lowest on health care and social protections like housing, old age, disability, and children services;
  • Interest on debt spending in Ontario is lower than most provinces;
  • Ontario receives the lowest total revenue per person than any other province; and 
  • Ontario’s tax burden is generally lower than the rest of Canada.

This hardly paints the picture of a province with a spending problem. Ontario is leading the race to the bottom. These are political choices not economic necessities. It doesn’t have to be this way, because we absolutely can afford to do better.

Our province is wealthier than it’s ever been.

Our GDP has never been bigger, our GDP-per-person is at an historic high, we are more productive, more innovative and wealthier than ever before. But here we are. It’s the first time you’ve asked to speak with us and it’s about capping wages? Quit wasting time on buck-a-beer style PR stunts and cheesy license plates  and focus on solutions that work for the people. 

Even the Ontario Chamber of Commerce has warned against deep public sector cuts acknowledging that Ontario already has low per-capita spending on public services and that investments will “help grow the economy and allow businesses to flourish.” 

It’s a fallacy to argue that public sector wages are too high because they are the majority of the “cost” of providing public services. That’s the nature of the service sector; it’s about actual people providing services. It’s not rocket science.

You want to manage compensation growth? Start with the out-of-control compensation growth through privatization. In 2014, the Auditor General concluded that P3s had cost Ontario taxpayers some eight-billion dollars more over nine years than if the government had just built them itself. So start by clawing back on P3 agreements that involve excessive compensation and drain the treasury.  

Start with privatized medical lab testing, which costs 50 per cent more. Think of the money we can save by bringing privatized lab services back in-house. Other Canadian jurisdictions are nationalizing services to save money; that’s because public ownership, management and delivery is the most efficient, cost effective and compassionate approach. 

Start by cracking down on tax cheats who hide billions offshore to avoid paying taxes in Ontario to the tune of 10 to 15-billion dollars every year. 

Start by reducing the ratio of management to frontline employees. Just look at the number of BPS managers on the Sunshine List and the potential savings are obvious. Eliminating unnecessary management layers would reduce costs but maintain the government’s promise not to cut the number of frontline employees.   

There are plenty of ways to rein in government spending, but going after public sector wages isn’t one that works. Thank you. 

Training, Colleges and Universities session 

I’m here today on behalf of OPSEU’s Executive Board and 155-thousand members who work in the Ontario Public Service, across the entire Broader Public Service and in the Training, Universities, and Colleges sectors.

Let me start by saying the entire premise of these sessions is a sham. You’re starting with an attack against public sector workers, but you want our “input”?  We are greatly disappointed that the Ford government has insulted frontline workers by not sending a single cabinet minister — or even a single MPP — to any of the sessions so far.

This shows complete contempt for workers who tirelessly provide public services that Ontarians rely on every day. Ontario public servants deserve better than being pawned off on a bunch of high priced Toronto lawyers. I’ve been Treasurer of OPSEU since 2011 and I have a pretty good idea about the cost of legal representation so I ask you how much are these lawyers costing Ontario taxpayers?

Let me make one vital point clear from the start: we fundamentally disagree with any plan – or any discussion on a plan – to cap public sector wages. This flawed strategy won’t fix anything. 

The Charter of Rights and Freedoms confirms the right to free collective bargaining. That’s not up for debate or discussion, and this session does not fulfil your Charter obligations. You’ve invited us here today, and we came to make that clear.

You’ve given us little to no information, except a few questions with very little context about the direction you’re planning to go. This makes it difficult to provide answers or to have any kind of meaningful discussion.

More cuts aren’t the answer. Public sector spending didn’t cause our so-called financial crisis. Corporate tax cuts and privatization did that. It’s why these sessions would be laughable, if they weren’t so deeply offensive. 

Our members who work on the frontlines deserve every penny they earn; they work hard every day to keep this province running, and they have the right to free collective bargaining. Their rights can’t be “consulted away,” so shame on you for even suggesting it.

That means that none of our existing contracts, and I repeat NONE, are open for renegotiation. Period. There will be no further discussion on that point.

In training, colleges, and universities, students and their families — and our members — have already felt more than their share of pain.

Decades of inadequate investment, privatization and wage suppression have taken an extreme toll. Our colleges, universities, and training programs are struggling to meet the needs of students and the employers who need a properly educated workforce. 

The sharp rise in precarious work is especially troubling and damaging.
In our colleges, for example, more than three-quarters – that’s 75 per cent – of faculty teach on short-term, low-wage contracts. It’s a similar story at universities.

These part time and contract faculty members don’t make enough money. And they don’t know if they’ll have a job from one term to the next.

There is no business model in the world that could provide a quality service or product with such an exploited and transitory workforce. 

But post-secondary and training workers keep showing up for work because they take their responsibilities seriously. They care about the people they teach and support. 

Meanwhile, your government doesn’t seem to care at all about post-secondary education or training. 

How else to explain your unilateral – and unconstitutional – cancellation of the College Task Force?

How else to explain the deep cuts you’re imposing on universities and colleges by cutting the tuition fees without providing additional operating grants?

How else to explain the deep cuts you’re imposing student loans and grants? That will mean fewer students getting the education they need. And that will mean even less for colleges and universities.

How else to explain the privatization of our training programs that will no doubt ending up costing more while delivering less?

This government is already imposing cuts on training, colleges, and universities. Cuts that will no doubt be passed on to the frontline workers, students, and their families.

At Ryerson University, for example, our members have been informed that every department will have to cut its budget next year and that unfilled positions will remain unfilled.

The squeeze is even tighter at rural and Northern universities such as Algoma and Nippissing.

It means an even more unsustainable workload on fewer workers, which will lead to lower-quality education.

And even after all these cuts, you’re now asking workers to help you find even more ways to cut our wages and working conditions? 

You asked us here to talk about capping wages. But is there any cap on your shamelessness and greed? Is there any cap on your barely camouflaged union busting?

No more. The jig is up. Ontario’s deficit cannot and will not be balanced on the backs of our workers and clients and students they serve. So instead of coming after our members and their Charter rights, focus on cleaning up our tax system and ending privatization.  

Revenue, Revenue, Revenue

It’s time that this government accept the practical solution: Fix Ontario’s revenue problem!

You want performance outcomes when it comes to colleges and universities? How about performance outcomes when it comes to corporate tax cuts? Citizens deserve to know exactly what they’re getting, or not getting, when their government doles out tax handouts.

Your approach isn’t working. And there’s not much expert agreement on it either. 
Take the latest report from the Financial Accountability Office of Ontario: 

Ontario’s program spending is the lowest in Canada, and since 2011 program spending has grown at less than half the rate of other provinces – which means the spending gap is widening;

  • Ontario spends the lowest on health care and social protections like housing, old age, disability, and children services;
  • Interest on debt spending in Ontario is lower than most provinces;
  • Ontario receives the lowest total revenue per person than any other province; and
  • Ontario’s tax burden is generally lower than the rest of Canada.

This hardly paints the picture of a province with a spending problem. Ontario is leading the race to the bottom. These are political choices not economic necessities. It doesn’t have to be this way, because we absolutely can afford to do better. Our province is wealthier than it’s ever been.

Start by cracking down on tax cheats who hide billions offshore to avoid paying taxes in Ontario to the tune of 10 to 15 billion dollars every year.

And then turn to the out-of-control spending that goes hand-in-hand with privatization and outsourcing.

In 2014, the Auditor General concluded that P3s had cost Ontario taxpayers some eight-billion dollars more over nine years than if the government had just built them itself. So start by clawing back on P3 agreements that involve excessive compensation and drain the treasury. 

So start by cancelling your plans to privatize the employment and training services offered by the OPS. I understand there’s a “vendor’s day” scheduled for May 15. Cancel it.

You must also allow the Ontario College of Trades to continue the important certification work it has done for years. Your chaotic changes are preventing people from completing their apprenticeships, hurting them, their families, and employers.

Another way to reduce unnecessary spending is by reducing the ratio of management to frontline employees. Just look at the number of bosses on the Sunshine List and the potential savings are obvious. 

Management bloat is particularly serious at our colleges and universities. Between 1996 and 2012, college management staff increased by 55 per cent. That translates to one boss for every three faculty members.

Those bosses aren’t cheap. Just two years ago, the college CEOs had the gall to ask for raises of 30 to 40 per cent. They wouldn’t give their frontline workers even get 3 per cent, but they wanted more than 30!?!

No question: eliminating unnecessary management layers would reduce costs but maintain the government’s promise not to cut the number of frontline employees.

Restore the student grants and loans. Cutting them is the worst kind of short-term decision. And while reducing tuition fees is an excellent idea, forcing workers to pay for those reductions erases any benefits reduced tuition might bring.

And while you’re at it, restore student union fees. That cut means even fewer workers on campuses, leaving the remaining workers even more overburdened.

And if you truly want to make our college system better and more cost-effective, immediately reinstate the College Task Force.

And I’m not just bringing this up because you violated the Charter rights of our members when you unilaterally cancelled the Task Force. It was ordered by the arbitrator in the settlement that ended the legal strike by college faculty members – you can’t just cancel it.

But aside from the illegality of it, cancelling the task force is a huge loss. You’ve shot yourself in the foot.

The task force is to be made up of students, faculty, support staff and managers. All at the same table, working together to map out the future. They’re the experts! They’ll find the best ways to improve the system.

Let them do the work they have the right to do.

And there’s also out-of-control spending to be saved by directing the College Employer Council to stop lavishing a fortune on lawyers blocking part-time faculty members from joining a union.

It’s been a year and a half since tens of thousands of part-time faculty voted on whether to join OPSEU.

But those votes are still uncounted because the Employer Council’s high-priced lawyers are using every stalling trick in the book. It’s what they did when full-time faculty voted to join OPSEU. It’s what they did when full-time support workers voted to join OPSEU. And it’s what they did when part-time support workers voted to join OPSEU.

But in each of those cases, the workers voted overwhelmingly in favour of joining OPSEU. I’m confident part-time faculty will do the same. 

So let’s stop wasting time and money. Direct the employer council to stop stalling and let the votes be counted.  

And finally, I’d like to say a few words directly to Doug Ford’s chief of staff, Dean French.
We’ve been trying since the election to get a meeting with Ford and French. They continue to refuse to meet with us.

But now we hear French is demanding an apology from us after we pointed out last week that he and his family stand to reap personal financial gain from the cuts being imposed on public education.

Since he still refuses to meet with us, we’ll take this opportunity to send him our apology. 
Dean French, OPSEU is sorry. We’re sorry that millions of Ontarians have to endure your cruel cuts and clear conflict of interest.

We’re sorry that you are helping to redirect some of our public wealth from the public school system to the private school system like your wife owned in Etobicoke. It’s truly sad that someone in your position doesn’t believe in publicly funded education. 

And we’re truly sorry that we’re not going to let you get away with destroying our public services.

There are plenty of ways to make government and our public services more effective and sustainable. Privatizing public services and suppressing public sector wages will do neither. 

Thank you.