Simon Ouellette | CUPE Communications
CUPE 1188, representing 34 municipal workers in Sackville, New Brunswick, has certainly changed in the last year. This transformation has been one of attitude and resolve. The once quiet and timid local has learned how to fight, campaign and proven to be cause for concern for town councillors and their re-election.
This shift did not happen on its own. It took a crisis – one produced out of thin air by an overzealous employer – to force the local to unite and stand together. In 2016 and 2017, the employer’s negotiator, backed by the town council, tested workers by attacking their seniority rights.
With 5,500 residents, Sackville is not like every other small town. It is a small union-friendly place, and could rightfully be called a “CUPE Town”: with one CUPE member for every seven residents. You will find CUPE members at the hospital, in schools, at the university, in the nursing home, the municipality, the liquor store and more.
Although Sackville residents possess a strong sense of community and enjoy the advantages of high union density, this in itself did not guarantee strong locals. Struggles for fairness – because they contain elements of education, solidarity and mobilization – are what keeps our locals strong. In Sackville, the overwhelming majority of CUPE 1188 members had not experienced much labour tension, or work disruption for over 35 years.
Private sector-style management
When the Town of Sackville hired a new Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) in 2013, the work climate changed rapidly. The union noticed the private sector style and management techniques of the CAO. But even with those early signs, CUPE 1188 was not expecting the hardball bargaining that was to come.
After several bargaining sessions in 2016, it became clear that the town was not dropping its demand for concessions on sick leave, hours of work and seniority.
The town negotiator was unyielding on another of his proposals: non-full-time employees should bypass the principle of seniority on full-time internal job postings. That meant that an employee’s years of service would not be taken into account for full-time applications.
Marcos Salib, CUPE’s national representative for the local, called for help and resources from other CUPE staff, and met with the executive of CUPE 1188. Leafleting citizens and lobbying councillors started in December 2016 to get seniority off the table. Member engagement and support were high.
Meanwhile in Ottawa, a fortunate coincidence was happening. CUPE’s National Executive Board was adopting a policy on resisting concessions and two-tier proposals. This policy stressed the importance of having CUPE staff and the division work closer with locals to fight concessions. It also reminded us about the importance of getting community support and strengthening our links with allies.
Strike preparations versus the rumour mill
In January, strike education and preparation had begun. The “Seniority Matters” campaign was rolled out along with CUPE regional action committees – composed of regional presidents – with support from the CUPE NB Division.
For their part, the employer was playing the waiting game. NB labour law requires unusually long procedural steps to be completed before a strike or a lockout can be called. With CUPE 1188 in conciliation, the town delayed meeting the union, hoping to use the procedural wait times to remove the threat to snow removal operations should a strike occur.
Support for strike action among members of 1188 was increasing, so council tried to make the attack on seniority less controversial. In its final offer to the union, the town modified the clause to apply only to new hires: “They sweetened the deal. No current worker, only new workers, would be affected by the concession,” said Corey Johnson, CUPE 1188 acting president. Many who were close to retirement had no big appetite for a drawn-out strike or lockout. Morale dropped when the employer fed the rumour mill by talking about a potential lockout and having private contractors contacted for prospective work. The employer was going around saying to employees: “You have to take the deal.” At the lowest point of conciliation, a few were contemplating signing this two-tiered concession contract.
“The council and CAO must have thought we were weak enough to accept anything,” said Pam Hicks, recording secretary of CUPE 1188. “They wanted to use fear of a lockout situation and our feeling of isolation to their advantage, and use a clause that would, with new temporary employees, weaken the union from the inside,” said Hicks.
Mobilizing the community to win
In February and March 2017, CUPE NB Division intervention and mobilization efforts were kicked into high gear. Outreach to the community was increased along with petitions, lawn sign delivery, radio ads and a Facebook page. The Regional Action Committees engaged other CUPE locals in the area and gradually reached beyond immediate supporters. Members convinced some private sector businesses to take and display the “Seniority Matters” signs in their stores.
In March and April, big rallies in front of the town hall were organized, with hundreds of members packing the room at the town’s monthly meetings. “The rallies did a lot of good. The local really saw the level of support they had from their community, their feelings of isolation dissipated. Members’ fear developed into anger, then indignation turned into resolve,” said Daniel Légère, CUPE NB Division President.
Firefighters, bakery workers, nurses, retail workers and others including the New Brunswick Federation of Labour came to demonstrations and flew their flags in Sackville.
Residents asked more and more questions to the town’s councillors, as awareness and support grew. The few union-friendly individuals on council were being heard and they pressured the town/employer’s negotiators to come to a deal.
Within six months, from December 2016 to May 2017, CUPE 1188 had escalated pressure, through a campaign that included lobbying, leaflets, petitions, strike education, radio ads, lawn signs, public rallies, town hall meetings and more.
At the very last minute of conciliation talks in May, and as a big rally was being planned for the coming week, the employer agreed to make a decent proposal to the union. A tentative agreement was reached. In the end, the town ratified a six-year contract with the union. The deal contained no concessions, included wage increases for all and specific adjustments for precarious workers, improved clothing and tool allowances - and most importantly - maintained all seniority rights.
The NEB Bargaining Policy as an education tool
CUPE 1188 and the CUPE NB Division have followed the principle of community unionism contained in the NEB policy: earning and maintaining community support is key for victories. The union was not as isolated as many thought it was. It simply had to tap into the collective strength that existed in their community.
Interestingly, the NEB policy has also been used as an education tool for members. “For CUPE 1188 it was an opportunity to remind each other of the importance of bargaining forward, not backward,” said Johnson. Members knew the policy could also be brought to the employer’s attention to show that the union would not back down from its fight against concessions. “CUPE 1188 members understand they are part of a big movement. Being in a union comes with many benefits, but also many responsibilities towards our fellow workers – including future workers,” added Légère.
“Sackville was a test, and workers succeeded. We won a battle, but the war is not over: we know that more municipalities will try to put their employees to the same challenges,” said Marcos Salib.
Nonetheless, a good victory always makes a difference. It motivates other groups who can then learn from mistakes and build on demonstrated strategies and tactics.
“The ‘Sackville Fight’ is a reminder for us, as a movement, to stay in shape. Raising CUPE locals’ capacity and resolve to take on fights won’t eliminate the possibility of facing bullies and unreasonable employers. It will, however, dramatically reduce it and raise our chances of success,” said Légère.