Dan Crow | CUPE Research

Worker and studentCanada’s system of collective bargaining is, for the most part, based on the premise that workers in individual workplaces will bargain directly with single employers at that workplace. It is a highly fragmented system of collective bargaining that poses challenges for unions in the era of government austerity and privatization. Workplaces, and thus bargaining units (notably in the public sector and service sector), have become smaller, lessening the collective strength that workers wield.

One of the exceptions to this system of fragmented bargaining is the Ontario school board sector, which is strengthened by a combination of central bargaining and local bargaining. Governed by the School Boards Collective Bargaining Act (SBCBA), unions negotiate a central agreement that covers all issues that have a cost (wages, benefits, etc.), and local agreements with school boards that cover issues directly related to individual workplaces (seniority, hiring, layoff and recall, etc.).

CUPE has responded to the creation of the SBCBA by creating the Ontario School Boards Council of Unions (OSBCU) that is responsible for negotiating the central collective agreement. Covering 55,000 members, this is the largest bargaining table in all of CUPE.

A CUPE bargaining table that represents a membership this size poses both opportunities and challenges. On the plus side, the collective power of this many CUPE members has great potential to fight for a good collective agreement, even in the face of a newly elected Progressive Conservative government that is simultaneously cutting taxes and promising to cut spending on vital public services.

The first challenge is to actively engage with all 55,000 members and involve them in the kinds of actions that build union strength. The second challenge is to coordinate local bargaining for 111 bargaining units on key issues.

To meet this challenge, OSBCU has been working with locals to develop strategic plans that include member-to-member conversations, building support for bargaining in our communities and working with allies to develop relationships with school board trustees to keep them accountable for delivering high quality public education. In these ways, OSBCU is moving bargaining forward by embracing centralized and coordinated bargaining across the sector – and by making bargaining more explicitly political by talking about public policy, like the expansion of public education. Plus, school board locals are mobilizing their members and their communities to act politically and challenge austerity.

CUPE has used sector-based coordinated bargaining strategies for years, and they have resulted in significant gains for members. CUPE has also used centralized bargaining models that have worked well. The OSBCU shows how CUPE rises to the challenges posed by hostile governments by utilizing strategic planning as a vital tool to build union power.