“Words are not heard, so cymbals and drums are made. Owing to lack of visibility, banners and flags are used to focus and unify people’s ears and eyes. Once people are unified, the brave cannot proceed alone, the timid cannot retreat alone – this is the rule for employing a group.” From the ancient text of Sun Tzu’s Art of War
From the ancient text of Sun Tzu’s Art of War
When Ontario hospital workers decided to fight the government’s meddling in the arbitration process and campaign for a negotiated settlement with no concessions, a real wage increase and job security, they had no idea the struggle would continue for the better part of a year. But their patience, adaptability and determination finally bore fruit when they were awarded a healthy wage increase while protecting their job security. Through the many pitfalls and turns of this campaign, CUPE hospital workers stuck together and beat the odds.
In July 1998, CUPE hospital workers formed an alliance with the Service Employees International Union to launch a court challenge against the Ontario government. The government was tampering with the arbitration process by appointing retired judges the unions thought would tip the balance in favour of hospital administrators and the government by slashing workers’ wages and allowing more contracting out in Ontario hospitals.
“Getting people to fight by letting the force of momentum work is like rolling logs and rocks. Logs and rocks are still when in a secure place, but roll on an incline… when people are skillfully led into battle, the momentum is like that of round rocks rolling down a high mountain – this is force.”
Unable to predict the outcome of the legal challenge, it was important to mobilize public support. Most Ontarians did not know hospital workers had lost the right to strike and many did not understand our concerns about a biased arbitration process. They did not know we had been working without a contract since 1995 or that hospitals wanted to privatize our jobs and cut our wages by 18 per cent.
So CUPE and SEIU launched the Negotiate – Don’t Arbitrate bargaining campaign, mobilizing members and creating a unified front in fighting the Ontario Hospital Association (OHA).
With information pickets, rallies and weekly events at hospitals across the province, the public began to see the OHA’s push to contracting out as an attack on the quality of hospital care. Assurances there would be no disruption in hospital services as long as we were at the table helped get people talking about the possibility of a hospital strike.
The threat of a hospital strike would prove difficult to keep alive over a period of several months, but the message was clear and strong.
“We helped keep the hospital system operating in the face of deep cuts and drastic changes,” said Michael Hurley, president of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions. “It is not acceptable that our reward for this is to lose our jobs or have our incomes slashed. We’ve asked our members to give us a strong strike mandate in the event that talks with the hospitals break down.”
Signs of public support and the threat of a hospital strike put pressure on the OHA to return to the table. But the OHA walked away after one day of bargaining, when CUPE and SEIU made it clear concessions on contracting out language would never be agreed to.
“So in night battles, you use many fires and drums, in daytime battles, you use many banners and flags, so as to influence people’s ears and eyes.”Sun Tzu
Getting the message out
With no progress in sight, it became necessary to turn up the volume. To make the threat of a strike more real, strike votes were taken across the province by both unions. The result was an 80 per cent strike mandate.
We released information on huge salary increases and perks hospital administrators had awarded themselves – averaging $15,000 between 1995 and 1997.
We also stepped up our attack on the Harris government, calling on the premier to order the OHA back to the bargaining table. The Conservative government’s drive to cut hospital budgets and push privatization made them an easy target, with an election on the horizon.
Pending the outcome of our court challenge, CUPE and SEIU applied to postpone an arbitration hearing by one of the retired judges appointed by the Harris government. The application was denied, and it looked like we would be forced into a biased arbitration, but at the last minute, bowing to mounting pressure, Justice Flanigan resigned.
The OHA meanwhile had returned to the table but again walked away. We had moved considerably on our wage demands, but the hospitals stood firm in their drive to contract out our work. They had counted on Justice Flanigan to deliver if talks failed, and his resignation represented a huge victory for hospital workers.
“Our members are the last line of defense against privatization in Ontario hospitals,” said Michael Hurley at the time. “If we lose protections against contracting out in our collective agreements, that brings us one giant step closer to an American-style, two-tier hospital system.”
“Move not unless you see an advantage; use not your troops unless there is something to be gained; fight not unless the position is critical.” Sun Tzu
It was clear that the anti-privatization message was our strongest hook in building public support. The campaign needed to shift gears to hammer home that message. Banners and placards, buttons and letterhead were redesigned to reflect that focus. The campaign slogan became Not For Sale with a hospital H in the background. Growing public sympathy was evident in editorials across the province and on talk shows and phone-ins.
To increase media coverage and opportunities for rallies, a used ambulance was purchased and painted with an American flag and credit card logos. Media interest was phenomenal. In community after community, with rallies, news conferences and public meetings, the ambulance helped focus public attention and get our message across. The threat of privatization was real and it needed to be stopped.
With an election looming and the SEIU getting restless, it was decided to approach the OHA for one last round of talks. Polls indicated that Mike Harris’ Conservative government would likely be reelected. In the runup to the election, the government was vulnerable to our attacks. But with a renewed mandate, the prospects for a positive settlement were not good. It was clear that a settlement was needed before the election.
Bargaining resumed in early April. This time the OHA wanted to talk process. A government mediator was brought in, but didn’t offer much help. The OHA was talking arbitration, but under the old system with a mutually agreed upon arbitrator. One of the larger locals on the SEIU side had always been eager to go to arbitration. It became clear they would jump at the chance.
A tough decision had to be made. Did we let them go to arbitration, split the alliance and then follow the pattern set by their award? Without an alliance, our position would clearly be weaker and the OHA would be the winner. If we didn’t join SEIU in arbitration, we wouldn’t be able to influence the outcome, yet we’d be stuck with the results.
So both unions and the OHA agreed to put the outstanding issues before George Adams, a highly respected and experienced arbitrator, and a former chair of the Ontario Labour Relations Board. In the end, we succeeded in avoiding a biased arbitration system with judges appointed by the political arm of the government.
“CUPE and SEIU members were prepared to fight, and used our power carefully,” said Hurley. “Our joint campaign succeeded in ways that our individual unions could not have accomplished alone.”
“Just as water retains no constant shape, so in warfare there are no constant conditions. He or she who can modify his or her tactics in relation to the opponent and thereby succeed in winning, may be called a heaven-born captain.”
In the end, Ontario hospital workers were able to celebrate with a 7.5 per cent raise and job security protected into the next millennium.
There was of course no guarantee the arbitrator would rule in our favour, but we had improved our chances by returning a measure of fairness to the process. Solidarity and perseverance made all the difference.