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It may sound like 70s’ lingo but “getting it together” is all the buzz within CUPE in BC. Across the province and in every sector, locals are coming together to coordinate bargaining.

According to Cynthia Wishart, BC’s regional director and point person for coordinated bargaining in the province: “Coordinated bargaining is not a totally new concept for CUPE in British Columbia, but the current approach is driven by what CUPE locals are facing across the bargaining table.”

Employers pushing concessions

Increasingly, employers are coordinating their efforts province-wide. Through the Public Sector Employers’ Council and other organizations, they’re pushing hard for restructuring, privatization, wage controls and concessions, determined to whittle away CUPE jobs and public services.

It became obvious to us a few years ago,” says Barry O’Neill, President of CUPE BC, “that CUPE could no longer ignore the fact that employers were coordinating across the province in a way we had never seen before. We knew that our employers were getting together and we had to figure out a way for CUPE locals to work together as well.”

So coordinated bargaining has been strengthened in the college, university, K-12, social services and municipal sectors. In colleges and social services, coordination is even reaching beyond CUPE.

Coordination beyond CUPE

College support staff locals have made a historic move in bargaining by inviting the BC Government Employees Union (BCGEU) to sit down and negotiate together at one table,” says Donn Stanley, college bargaining coordinator. Gail Miller, president of Local 3479 at North Island College and Ed Nicholas, president of Local 2081 at Camosun College, can already sense the strength that flows from shared goals and concerted action.

In BC’s social services sector, the move towards coordinated bargaining started three years ago with the formation of Local 3999, a province-wide local. This year, the local has joined forces with other social services locals to form a Social Services Bargaining Council and is looking at cooperative bargaining with community workers in CUPE’s Health Care Division (HEU) and the BCGEU.

Communication is key

Local 3999 is moving quickly to strengthen its communications capacity. Mike Lanier, a member of the local’s executive and the Bargaining Council, says “developing links with other unions and among CUPE members will move us to a level playing field in bargaining with our employers.”

I know there are concerns about the relationship between coordinated bargaining and local autonomy,” says Gary Johnson, coordinator for school bargaining. “But in the face of mounting pressure from employers organized on a province-wide basis it looks like our efforts could well give new strength to CUPE’s brand of local autonomy.”

Building step by step

In the Lower Mainland, municipal locals account for close to 20,000 members. Successful coordination of bargaining goals and strategies could provide this group every bit as much clout as their employers have been exerting through the Greater Vancouver Regional District. And successful co-ordination here could spread to other parts of the province.

Increasingly, CUPE members in BC have watched employers in every part of the public sector conspire to keep wages down, increase privatization and attempt to make concession bargaining the “norm”.

Barry O’Neill summarizes the situation in 1998 this way. “The challenge in collective bargaining has never been greater, but I know that CUPE members in BC are ready to take the offensive going into 2000 and beyond. Strategic use of coordinated bargaining is just one way.”

Louise Leclair