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CUPE at labour forum on HIV/AIDS

The international AIDS conference taking place in Toronto this week also attracted labour representatives from dozens of countries to a pre-conference forum. CUPE was a key participant, with a delegation that included front-line workers in HIV/AIDS education and care as well as activists from CUPE’s national pink triangle and international solidarity committees.

Hosted by the Canadian Labour Congress, the labour forum on HIV/AIDS attracted a who’s who of trade unionists from across Africa, Europe, Southeast Asia, South America and the Middle East, as well as Canada and the United States. They shared first-hand experiences, insights and strategies in their common struggle against the spread of the disease that has killed more than 25 million people worldwide and infected tens of millions more.

It was fascinating and disheartening,” said Fred Hahn, secretary-treasurer of CUPE Ontario and chair of the forum panel on policy and advocacy. “There was so much frustration that labour centrals and national unions are not truly taking seriously the work that must be done on HIV/AIDS.”

Hahn believes the language used and how we talk about AIDS is important. “It’s not people with AIDS over there, and we in unions over here,” he said. “We are all affected.”

Given the evidence that new HIV infection rates are going up across the board, I think it would be important to focus on an HIV/AIDS theme at our next equality forum for convention 2007,” said Gerry Lavallée, a member of CUPE’s Air Canada component.

It would be great for our women’s task force, national pink triangle committee, national Aboriginal council, rainbow committee and other stakeholders to have a frank discussion about HIV/AIDS, safer sex practices, sex work, education and human rights with other CUPE members.”

This disease not only effects people in Africa or gay men, as is commonly believed,” said Katherine Nastovski, chair of CUPE Ontario’s international solidarity committee. “It’s an ongoing problem in Canada, particularly among Aboriginal women and people of colour.”

CUPE delegates raised concerns in support of safe injection sites in Vancouver and needle exchange programs across the country, which are threatened by funding and program cuts.

We have a lot of members who work in this area doing front-line prevention education and support around these issues in communities, like I do,” said Julia Barnett, a member of CUPE 79 in Toronto who works in public health and is an expert on education and training around HIV/AIDS prevention and care.

We need to be brought on board, to share our expertise. We need better coordination and improved communication internally,” Barnett said. “We have the capacity to educate our members and the public, to make the connection between strong public services, privatization, fighting poverty, fighting HIV/AIDS and the health and well-being of our members and our communities.”

Delegates were clear that union solidarity work on HIV/AIDS cannot be improvised. Planning is essential. Relationships need to be consistent. Union initiatives require research, policy, advocacy, education and training, both at home and in developing countries.

Canadian Labour Congress vice-president Marie Clarke Walker, a CUPE member, chaired the panel on international solidarity. “It is imperative that we as a labour movement address (HIV/AIDS) and develop strategies to deal with it in a holistic and global manner,” she said.

CLC secretary-treasurer Hassan Yussuff made a commitment to triple the existing CLC AIDS Fund within three years, to make possible the creation of an international HIV/AIDS labour network.

If a single key message came out of the forum, it was that women bear the brunt of the disease, caring for the sick and dying and for surviving family members, on top of suffering among the highest rates of infection. Gender equality is a necessary step in winning this battle. This point was reinforced by the United Nation’s special envoy for AIDS in Africa, Stephen Lewis, who made an appearance at the forum’s opening reception.

CUPE delegates were among the many who expressed dismay and disappointment that Prime Minister Stephen Harper snubbed the event.

We can think of no more pressing global issue which might merit your attendance as Prime Minister of Canada than a conference devoted to a disease that has killed 25 million people so far,” National President Paul Moist wrote in a letter to Harper.

Conference delegates, media commentators and average Canadians are left to wonder what message you were attempting to convey by refusing to attend this important international gathering being held on our soil.”

Online survey on women in the union available now

The national women’s task force is calling for members’ help in identifying barriers that make it more difficult for women to participate and hold leadership positions in CUPE.

The task force has launched a member survey available online at cupe.ca. The survey asks questions about individual union experiences and solicits input on how CUPE can better address women’s equality issues in the workplace.

The survey is open to all CUPE members, both women and men. The deadline for completing the survey is Nov. 10, 2006.

CUPE’s membership is almost two-thirds female, yet women are underrepresented in leadership positions at the provincial and national levels and in large locals. Delegates at the 2005 national convention adopted a resolution calling for a national women’s task force to investigate the issues facing women members.

The online survey is one way of reaching out and hearing members’ views. Task force members are also holding more in-depth face-to-face consultations with members in their regions and will be distributing written surveys.

Results of the survey will be released in a report and will be available to all CUPE members.

CUPE Ontario wins battle against OMERS money managers

When CUPE Ontario launched a lawsuit against the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System (OMERS) two years ago, OMERS said the union’s claims were “simply not reflective of the truth.”

However, in his decision released Aug. 16, Justice Ground of the Ontario Superior Court agreed with CUPE Ontario. Members have a right to know how their pension monies are invested, and further, he agreed that OMERS members have a right to know if pension fund managers are unjustly enriching themselves through charging exorbitant fees.

CUPE Ontario has lifted the veil of secrecy on OMERS investments and may well set a precedent for all pension plan members in the province,” said Sid Ryan, president of CUPE Ontario. “With Justice Ground’s decision, it is obvious that our decision to launch our lawsuit was the correct one.”

OMERS also claimed that the lawsuit was a waste of pension resources because of the legal fees OMERS would have to pay to defend a suit that they claimed had no merit. However, with yesterday’s decision, Justice Ground found that the case is strong enough to proceed to trial.

The action was triggered by OMERS dealings with money management firm Borealis that allegedly saw more than $100 million paid out in annual and termination fees over a 19-month period, including alleged payments to three senior managers totaling about $10.5 million, for outsourcing and then repatriating management of OMERS real estate assets.

The Borealis transactions of principal concern to CUPE Ontario are a number of decisions culminating in the sale by the OMERS board of the asset management business of OMERS Realty Corporation to Borealis for $11 million in June 2002.

The Financial Services Commission of Ontario (FSCO) has also taken the Borealis affair seriously. The FSCO began its investigation in 2004 and established a temporary office in the OMERS building to gain direct access to the mountains of paperwork they must examine to complete their investigation of the Borealis affair. The FSCO report is due in December.

CUPE Ontario is seeking repayment of any improper gains made by OMERS fiduciaries and the restoration of OMERS losses to the greatest extent possible. The case has yet to go to court and all allegations must be proven at trial.

The union is considering appealing some aspects of Justice Ground’s decision and requires clarification of others. Some of the allegations against individual defendants and Borealis were dismissed.

Solid first agreement for members in Sooke, B.C.

The District of Sooke, B.C., and its CUPE staff have negotiated a solid first agreement that will move compensation and working conditions for employees closer to others in the region.

Sooke employees, who joined CUPE 374 in May 2006, achieved wage parity adjustments of 7.5 per cent in 2006 and 5.8 per cent in 2007 as well as a general wage increase of 4 per cent in 2008.

This agreement goes a long way towards putting Sooke employees in line with unionized local government employers in the region,” said Justin Schmid, president of CUPE 374. The district now leads civic employers in the region in providing 15 per cent of wages in lieu of benefits for casual staff.

The contract provides certainty for both the district and workers until the end of 2008, and ensures that employees will be protected from discriminatory or harassing behaviour in the workplace. Members voted to ratify the agreement on Aug. 8 following two months of negotiations.

CUPE 374 represents 13 municipal workers in Sooke. They work in planning, bylaw enforcement, engineering, building inspection, finance, and development services as well as the deputy clerk and deputy treasurer. Overall, the local has some 1,500 members working in several Greater Victoria municipalities.

Peace River negotiations stall as back-to-school looms

School support workers in Peace River, Alta., are putting pressure on the local school board to settle outstanding wage and benefit issues before the school year starts.

CUPE 9857 represents educational assistants, office managers, secretaries, information specialists, and maintenance staff. They have been working without a contract for over a year.

Bargaining has reached a total impasse, as the board refuses to budge on wages. On average, the workers earn $2/hour less than their counterparts in neighbouring school divisions. Peace River wages are not keeping pace with other northern Alberta school divisions, let alone the private sector.

The community’s booming economy and skyrocketing cost of living means extremely high turnover for support staff in Peace River schools. Staffing shortages are a reality.

CUPE is simply asking for wage fairness, so that schools can recruit and retain enough people to do these important jobs,” said CUPE 9857 president Carmen Geisser-Smith.

The local is hosting a community BBQ Aug. 19 to raise awareness and drum up support.

Saint-Félix-de-Valois workers protest stalled contract talks

Municipal workers in Saint-Félix-de-Valois, Que., held a rally outside a town council meeting this week to express their concern over stalled contract negotiations.

The 10 members of CUPE 4446 have been without a contract since December 2004 and are putting pressure on the municipality to get moving on negotiations. Outstanding issues include wages and replacements during absences. The two sides are in conciliation. The next meeting is scheduled for Sept. 13.

Municipal workers from several neighbouring communities joined the protest in solidarity. Lucie Clément, the regional representative of the Quebec Federation of Labour, also came out to support the workers.