Paul O’Donnell and Andrea Addario | CUPE

Workers at the Canadian Hearing Society (CHS) were on strike for 10 weeks to stop their employer from replacing their existing sick leave plan with an inferior short-term disability (STD) plan.

Representing 227 Ontario workers, CUPE 2073 members are 90 per cent women and 40 per cent deaf.

The local’s contract expired in 2013. CHS claimed it could no longer afford the existing sick leave plan, where members banked unused days, with “cash out” on retirement.

At the same time, less than half of the members had enough sick days banked to carry them through the waiting period required for long-term disability. New members who hadn’t had time to accumulate many sick days, and those who had previously used sick days, were vulnerable.

On the eve of the strike deadline, the CHS tabled a concessionary STD plan that provided just six sick days annually at full salary. The employer also proposed zero wage increases and lump sum payouts for a workforce that had gone four years without raises. This caused the strike.

Four weeks into the strike, CHS sent packages to each member’s home, including details never tabled in bargaining.

This attempt to union-bust was met with incredible solidarity. Members sent their packages back (or creatively destroyed them on social media) and told negotiators, “We’re behind you all the way.”

The local ultimately reached agreement to return to the table with a third-party mediator. They did so in a position of strength, knowing the membership would not settle for an inferior sick leave plan.

The goal was to bargain a plan that offered the greatest protection against illness or injury to the greatest number of members, along with percentage wage increases in every year of the contract, and a modest pension proposal.

CUPE 2073 presented a counterproposal that would improve coverage for everyone, offering more salary protection to all employees. The plan they bargained combines an STD plan with sick days at 100 per cent of salary that can be placed in a reserve if unused at the end of the year. Reserve days can be used to top up STD payments from 75 to 100 per cent, and can also be used to cover the STD “qualifying” period. The plan also allows current employees to cash out sick leave banks, with the option of leaving up to 30 days in this new reserve.

This hybrid sick leave plan was a creative solution to a tough round of bargaining. The settlement also included wage and pension increases.