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Many CUPE locals are having a hard time at the bargaining table. Employers are trying to erode hard-won contract gains – replacing full-time jobs with part-time and casual staff at reduced wages, rolling back benefits and sick leave, and trying to bargain two-tier collective agreements.

Unions can successfully push back at the bargaining table, but it takes strategy, solidarity and organizing. At the CUPE Sector Council Conference we heard three inspiring stories of CUPE locals who have successfully protected worker rights and fought for fairer wages and benefits.

Edith Cardin, a worker at CUPE 429, spoke about the fight for pay equity at the City of Montreal. Across Canada, women still earn less than men for work of the same value.

At the City of Montreal, the push for pay equity became more and more important as full time jobs were replaced with part time jobs. Two thirds of part time workers at the city are women.

By using the legislation as a tool, doing research on where there are gaps, and taking political action, CUPE 429 achieved real gains for their members. After 12 years of campaigning, the City of Montreal finally agreed to honour the pay adjustments they owed workers.

But Cardin emphasized that even if your province does not have legislation, job evaluation is a useful tool for evaluating wage gaps and pushing for fairer wages.

“The link between pay equity and job evaluation is complicated, but necessary,” said Cardin. “When we say we are going to fight for fairness we have to do that by pushing for fairness for everybody.”

We also heard from Shawn Tokar and Patricia Carter from CUPE 3085, Selkirk Community Living, who just ran a very successful campaign to raise wages for some of the lowest paid public servants in Manitoba – front line workers in community social services.

“In Selkirk, where the average job is a low income wage, and the average rent is $1,200 a month plus utilities plus the cost of food, the price of gas how are we suppose to live on these wages? How are people going to make bill payments or get a mortgage?” said Tokar. “We proposed a wage scale table that we thought workers deserved. The employers came back with a one per cent increase on an already low wage of $11.32 an hour.”

The local was firm in their demands for a fair wage. After three rounds of conciliation it was clear that their employer was not going to move on wages. The local voted on the last contract offer. 100 per cent vote against deal, 94 per cent in favour of strike.

The local started off with information pickets to tell the public about the important work front line community living workers do. The information picket was very successful for raising awareness across the province about the low wages these workers were being offered. It was also successful in mobilizing members.

“We were seeing young mothers, grandmothers, new workers coming out on the picket line,” said Carter. “People started to find a voice. When people realize they have power, it is phenomenal.”

As the strike deadline approached, the provincial government got nervous. They stepped in at the last minute and offered increased funding so that all workers in the community living sector can have a fair wage.

“As front line workers we are often devalued in the system. Trying to get people to come together to fight for better wages was hard,” said Carter. “But we did. I cried because I knew we had not only done something for our local, but that we had helped all front line workers in the province.”

The final speaker was Janet Bigelow, president of CUPE 1048 in Prince George.

Bigelow spoke about how she never thought that politics had the place in the union – until a new mayor was elected in Prince George with a mandate for fiscal restraint. An early move from the new major was implementing the most expensive per capita Core Service review in the country, to find “efficiencies” in the system.

At the bargaining table, the city brought forward a net zero mandate, which means any gains in benefits or wages must come from somewhere else in the collective agreement. The city was pushing for a two-tiered contract, for lower wages for some workers, and for lower wages for everyone.

The local worked to raise awareness about the bargaining process with their members, and to counter the employer’s spin. They went to every worksite, hosted coffee talks, held nighttime meetings and sent out bargaining bulletins.

The city intervened and asked the Labour Relations Board to conduct a final vote. An over whelming majority of workers voted down the contract.

The local held a one day walkout, and was preparing for a full strike. A week later they reached a deal that successfully pushed back on the major concessions and included wage increases for all workers.

“I learned some big lessons. Politics does belong in unions,” said Bigelow. “For the last few years I have made the point of talking about the upcoming municipal election. We started planning for the municipal elections the second we signed our deal.”

The panel highlighted that when we motivate our members, and engage the in our struggles we can successfully make gains for all workers.