This profile is intended to provide CUPE members with basic information about the sector they work in from a national perspective.

CUPE members in the social services sector provide a range of services and supports to vulnerable and often marginalized people. CUPE members working in the sector do a wide variety of work, such as assisting women and children fleeing domestic violence, working with adults with developmental disabilities, protecting
children from harm and neglect, providing employment counselling, administering social assistance, staffing shelters and providing education about HIV and AIDS. They work for a range of employers from small non-profit community agencies to large social assistance programs and municipalities. CUPE works with the people we serve, their families and the organizations that support them, to improve services and increase funding.

Approximately 85 per cent of workers in the social services sector are women. An increasing amount of work is being pushed to temporary, contract, casual, or part-time positions. CUPE is the second-largest union in the social services sector, representing approximately 27 per cent of all unionized social services workers. The largest union in the sector is the National Union of Public and General Employees, representing about 34 per cent of unionized workers.

By the numbers:

  • Number of members in the sector: 50,200
  • Number of social services bargaining units: 524

In addition, we have members in larger locals that overlap with several other sectors including municipalities, school boards and health sectors. For example, workers in Ontario who provide social assistance are employed by municipalities.

Funding and governance

More than a decade of government funding cuts have made social services vulnerable to privatization – either outright or by stealth.

An emerging form of privatization is the social impact bond (SIB), a market driven investment approach that allows the private sector to profit from social service delivery. Under this model, the private sector finances an organization to provide social services. If agreed-upon targets are met, the government pays investors up to a 14 per cent return on their investment. In adopting this model, governments outsource control of financing, service delivery and follow-up evaluation to the private sector.

SIBs are being considered in British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario, Nova Scotia, Quebec and New Brunswick in areas such as prisoner rehabilitation and youth apprehensions, asthma reduction, and services for Aboriginal peoples. Saskatchewan already has one SIB, a home for single mothers and their children, and is exploring additional projects. The federal government is also involved in a SIB to provide skills training to individuals. However, 60 per cent of the SIB funding is expected to be spent on overhead and profits rather than service delivery.

The introduction of individualized funding, or “vouchers,” for clients is another form of stealth privatization. Governments give financial resources directly to parents, families or individuals so they can purchase social services and supports. In Ontario, for example, indivi­duals with developmental disabilities or their families receive funding in order to purchase services and supports. Though framed as providing choice to families, this practice is in reality a piecemeal approach that weakens the overall system by fragmenting services, eroding working conditions and wages, and continuing the chronic underfunding in the sector. It does nothing to ensure that needed services are actually available and accessible, while promoting the development of private for-profit services.

For over a decade, public-private partnerships (P3s) have been making headway in the social services sector. Since 2002, the BC government has maintained a P3 with an Arizona for-profit corporation for the delivery
of employment services to persons receiving social assistance. A similar service, JobsNow, was introduced as a pilot project from 2005-2007 by the Ontario government. An independent review found that it was no more effective than the public program and failed to save the government money. The pilot project in Ontario was cancelled following the assessment, however the BC program continues.

Another model being promoted is competitive bidding, which opens the door to privatization by imposing a market model on community social services agencies. For example, the former Conservative government in Alberta introduced funding for preventative social services programs through a competitive bidding process in which agency applications are reviewed and ranked based on guidelines and an assessment of community needs. This process pits non-profit community agencies against one another and against private operators for scarce funding resources, staff and volunteers.


CUPE’s social services sector has a mix of local, coordinated and central bargaining. Local bargaining is the sole form in New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Manitoba and Alberta, while some locals in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, Ontario and Saskatchewan have forms of coordinated bargaining.  Central bargaining exists in BC, Quebec and Ontario.

In BC, Nova Scotia and Ontario, legisla­tive attacks on collective bargaining and interest arbitration have created challenges in the sector. Attacks on workers’ rights, such as legislated wage freezes, back-to-work legislation, forced arbitration and expansive definitions of essential services have created a difficult collective bargaining environment.

Members in some sub-sectors have made gains in negotiating collective agreement language on workload. For example, many locals in Ontario’s child welfare sector now have comprehensive language on workload, achieved through coordinated bargaining. 


Members in the social services sector have a variety of pension arrangements: municipal pension plans (BC community social service workers and Ontario municipal and Children’s Aid Societies workers), large pension plans (Healthcare of Ontario Pension Plan), the Multi-Sector Pension Plan (MSPP), and Group Registered Retirement Savings Plans. Over 75 per cent of social service locals have a pension plan; over half of those are defined benefit plans. CUPE has been extremely successful at introducing the MSPP in many smaller social services workplaces. For example, through coordinated bargaining, members in 86 per cent of developmental services bargaining units in Ontario now participate in the MSPP. Many workers in the social services sector, however, still do not have any pension arrangements.

Success stories

CUPE’s lobbying, strong connections with allies and on-the-ground mobilizing have led to significant gains for workers in the social services sector.

After four months of job actions and a strong strike vote, the community social services sector in BC signed a five-year contract in 2014 with wage adjustments and increases of up to 11.5 per cent. CUPE BC was active with the BC Community Living Action Group (BC-CLAG), a network of self-advocates, families, support staff and agencies that support adults with disabilities. Throughout the bargaining process BC-CLAG held public meetings, advocated, and did media work. At the same time, members engaged in rotating strikes throughout the province. Through this multi-pronged mobilization, workers were able to highlight the crisis in the community social services sector and achieve gains at the bargaining table.

The near-closure due to funding shortfalls of Bryony House, a transition home in Halifax, illustrates the degree of crisis in the sector. CUPE members worked with the Public Service Alliance of Canada, the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour and the Transition Home Association of Nova Scotia to highlight the impact of a lack of stable funding. In addition to facility closures and bare-minimum or short staffing, workers were being asked to fundraise to supplement budgets for food and fuel, and to pick up extras for clients at their own expense. The collective labour campaign resulted in an additional $500,000 put toward the budget of Nova Scotia’s Transition Homes.

Developmental services workers mobilized for much-needed wage increases in Manitoba and Ontario. In 2014, the Ontario government allocated $200 million over three years for frontline developmental services workers, while the Manitoba government announced $6 million over three years for support workers.

These increases would not have happened without ongoing and concerted pressure from CUPE members. In Manitoba, members held information pickets and demonstrated outside the minister of family services and housing’s office. The funding announcement came one day before the strike deadline for members of CUPE 3085 in Selkirk.
Ontario members pressured the government by inviting their members of provincial parliament to their worksites, making presentations to parliamentary committees and taking part in coordinated bargaining.