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CUPE has come a long way in its embrace of strategic, coordinated bargaining across sectors and unions, CUPE BC president Barry O’Neill told delegates, in his welcoming remarks on Tuesday night.

Thanks to the BC Liberal government’s legislative assault on labour rights in the last decade, which seriously undermined public sector collective bargaining in this province, O’Neill said that CUPE and other public sector unions have had little choice but to develop new strategies for achieving fair and equitable collective agreements.

One factor that has made a difference for CUPE at the bargaining table in recent years is our members’ positive public profile in B.C. communities. Today, said O’Neill, CUPE has the staff resources and expertise to get the job done in contract negotiations. But before the parties even sit down to talk, the union is already seen by the employer as having the support of the public in the communities where our members work.

It’s our job to help set the table to make that happen,” he told delegates, referring to CUPE BC’s function as the political wing of the union. “Our role is to make sure that when your local gets to the table, they have the right level of respect for their work and that the other side knows that.”

O’Neill warned delegates that the next round of bargaining will be difficult, as local unions seek significant improvements from a government that has refused to budge from its “net zero” wage mandate.

It is going to be a very difficult time for local unions,” he said, adding that CUPE will benefit from the union’s ability “to work with others in the labour movement, to make sure we’re all singing from the same song sheet.”

But he warned against complacency on the provincial political front.

I’m concerned that the government will try to trap us by pitting us one against the other and that must not happen,” he said. “The fight doesn’t end at the conference. The fight starts at the conference, and we have to talk to each other more than we’ve talked to each other before.”