From the beginning, it felt like right-wing power brokers were working behind the scenes to undermine CUPE 4400s efforts to reach a negotiated settlement with the Toronto District School Board.
The locals goal was clear: a fair wage and job security for 13,000 support staff who perform teaching, clerical and custodial duties. The Ontario government and right-wing trustees had other ideas: low wages and contracting out.
It all started when the Conservative government of Mike Harris cut education funding in Ontario, introducing a funding formula that didnt work. At the same time they turned school trustees into part-time minions earning $5,000 a year. At that rate its hard to attract dedicated, accountable representatives of the people. Trustees seem less concerned about being re-elected or listening to what parents, students, the public and, especially, what employees think. Even if you end up with a few who care, they will never be a majority.
Board looking to freeze wages, cut jobs
The board began negotiations by offering a wage freeze and demanding the right to contract out, lay off or downsize as it pleased to achieve savings required by the provincial funding formula.
Never mind that they had just given teachers an 8 per cent hike or the fact they had awarded the director of education a salary of $180,000 a year, an increase of more than 20 per cent. These werent normal negotiations. The employer didnt seem to be worried about an approaching strike
deadline. It felt like they were secretly cooperating with the government to make sure 13,000 of their lowest paid workers would join the ranks of the working poor in Ontarios most expensive city.
On March 31 the strike began. Some said the members wouldnt walk, having been on strike for two weeks in 1999. But since 1993 theyd had only a one per cent pay hike, and after seeing the teachers get 8 per cent over two years without a strike, members were more determined than ever.
The strike of 2001 was solid, dramatic and well organized. The public was on side. The message was getting out. Even parents understood our cause was just. Our fight was not just about workers rights. It was a fight for quality public education.
But still the board showed no respect at the table. We started out with five trustees supporting an improvement in the boards offer. The CUPE 4400 campaign moved that to six, then to eight and finally to nine. Our campaign was working, but we hit a wall. Two progressive trustees had a conflict of interest and said they couldnt help us. With a total of 22 on the board and two sidelined, we needed 11 votes to win.
The right-wing trustees, the self-professed liberals, and even one who ran on an NDP ticket, refused to budge even when thousands of CUPE 4400 members rallied outside their meetings, completely shutting down College Street for hours during rush hour. They blamed the funding formula, or they claimed the workers were already well paid. Obviously theyve never had to raise a family on the average $26,000 CUPE 4400 salary.
Harris rigs bargaining
After four weeks on strike and after schools had been closed for a week the government introduced the most draconian back-to-work legislation ever seen in Ontario. That same day, the board had held an emergency meeting to debate their position. Momentum was on the unions side. But we lost the vote10 to 9. Would it have turned out differently if the government hadnt introduced its back-to-work legislation? Could it be that one more trustee would have voted to break the stalemate had the government not stepped in?
The legislation was a real piece of work. It named the boards former lawyer as the arbitrator! This third party was then required to guarantee the contract could be funded within the governments inadequate funding formula. Talk about the decks being stacked against you.
The legislation passed on April 27, shortly before midnight. It allowed the employer and the union seven days to reach a negotiated settlement. But with the strike over, its leverage was lost. The employer had little reason to settle, because arbitration was sure to achieve a far cheaper settlement. After all, it would be written by Mike Harris hand-picked arbitrator.
Cant legislate good will
But the membership held together and strengthened their resolve. At a special information meeting for members of CUPE 4400 after the legislation was adopted, thousands of members came to support their bargaining team and stood firm, together.
The government can legislate us back to work, but they cant legislate good will, said CUPE 4400 president John Weatherup.
You made us all so proud with your strong, well-organized strike, said CUPE National President Judy Darcy. Members from all across this country have asked me to salute your strength and determination.
The members would go back to work. The law would be obeyed. But all the extras staying a little late after your shift to finish up a job, the extra coaching, the extra efforts all of us make when we feel our employer respects us would be a thing of the past if a negotiated settlement could not be reached.
In the end, that was the most powerful bargaining chip of all. It would cost the board a lot more to cover those extras than it would to settle the contract.
Of course it went down to the wire. The day before the legislation was to kick in, the day before Mike Harris was about to rewrite the contract, we still didnt know if a settlement could be reached. But that afternoon came word of a breakthrough.
Special membership meetings set for May 4, five weeks after the strike began, were turned into a ratification vote. Members would vote on a mediators recommendation for settlement, reached just in the nick of time.
Solidarity pays off
What the members accomplished was truly amazing considering the gun of Tory legislation aimed at our heads. The deal included a 5.7 per cent raise over two years, with a wage re-opener for the third year. It also provided protection against contracting out. If the Board wanted to cut positions, it would have to offer an equal number of early leave and exit packages to avoid layoffs.
Thanks to the strength of the membership, CUPE 4400 achieved a negotiated settlement with no parts of the collective agreement subjected to binding arbitration. Standing together stronger than ever, the union proved that the power of people, united, can overcome even the combined power of a nasty employer and a mean-spirited government.
Gone are the distinctions of the former local unions before amalgamation just a few years ago, said Weatherup. Every CUPE 4400 member should be very proud of the way we stood up to this employer. We are stronger and more united than ever.
Together we will continue to fight this provincial government to restore adequate funding for public education in this province.
Robert Lamoureux is a Communications Representative in the Ontario region who worked closely with CUPE 4400 for the duration of its strike.