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Years of mergers, amalgamations and structural change have taken their toll on public service workers – and dramatically increased their workloads.

Restructuring of public service workplaces always reduces staff. That means bigger and more intense workloads for those remaining.

Most Canadians are now familiar with such restructuring. They know that the stated goals of improving service and ‘rationalizing’ overheads are really code words for cutting staff, reducing service and passing more costs on to the public.

The changes have created significant stress for workers who face threats to their job security, reduced staffing, increases in workload and, very often, a dissatisfied and disgruntled public.

Restructuring is also a lot of work! Lots of meetings, lots of new forms and procedures, lots of work to mesh policies and practices, often under a very short deadline.

It may involve relocation, the decommissioning of buildings or equipment, or the introduction of new technology. There may be more people to keep in the loop, greater distances to travel, a need for technology that had not existed.

And while all this restructuring occurs, staff members are expected to continue providing service in a seamless fashion. And employers want more work in less time from fewer workers.

At the core of most restructuring is a push to cut government spending, to cut jobs and to privatize as many public services as possible. Government and corporate policies have pushed real wages down, intensified work, created high unemployment, increased part-time employment and reduced public services.

It’s a way to force change, undermine and eliminate labour standards and benefits, and increase workloads. Workers are displaced through restructuring and many find it difficult to get jobs elsewhere.

Since the 1980s, Canadian employers have undertaken major restructuring. It has brought permanent layoffs to thousands of workers. Striving to be “globally competitive,” employers have done everything they can to lower wages and benefit costs.

This restructuring has devastated the public sector. Governments in Canada are changing the way public services are organized, funded and delivered.

Public sector restructuring often involves the merging of services or departments. Sometimes it calls for the amalgamation of entire workplaces. CUPE members have seen the mergers of hospitals, municipalities, nursing homes, school boards and airlines as well as the transfer of services from one institution to another.

For us, the complexity of restructuring revolves around redeployment, transfers and seniority. In most cases, employers and governments are demanding increases in workloads to make government-driven restructuring work.

How do we see it in our workplaces?

Recent studies show that restructuring creates higher levels of stress, anxiety and work overload.

An International Labour Organization study of five industrialized countries cites the downsizing, layoffs, mergers, short-term contracts and higher productivity demands of restructuring. It also predicts a dramatic growth in anxiety, burnout and depression.

Many workers report high anxiety levels due to restructuring. And the consequences for staff size, levels of workload and diminished working conditions have been stark.

A 1995-97 study of an Ontario teaching hospital raised questions about the true costs of re-engineering and amalgamation. The study found that re-engineering the hospital caused “increased emotional distress among staff, less social support in the workplace and a loss of trust in the…employer.” Staff added that the quality of patient care had seriously declined.

During the study, the teaching hospital underwent extensive re-engineering, downsizing and cost cutting. Staff reported “significant increases in depression, anxiety, emotional exhaustion and job insecurity.”

Restructuring is usually announced with little or no warning. Workers are not involved in discussions about the rationale, costs, consequences or details. Yet mergers and downsizing have a major impact on workers as governments continue to reorganize to cut costs and services.

Staff reductions due to restructuring have serious consequences for workers and their communities.

For example, CUPE members providing services for persons with developmental disabilities are very aware of the need for adequate staffing. Too often short-staffing results in unnecessary stress and violent incidents.

Among municipal outside workers, staff cuts and employer efforts to avoid overtime mean that repairs to streets and winter snow removal are delayed. This creates hazards for drivers and pedestrians.

In some cases, when work is contracted out, health and safety standards (as well as the quality of service) deteriorate under the pressure to deliver services as cheaply as possible.

Many CUPE bargaining units are shrinking and many members are losing their jobs.

Those still working are under enormous stress from increased workloads and uncertainty about whether their jobs will be next on the chopping block. Even if their jobs are not in danger, their hours could be reduced, or their full-time jobs turned into part-time jobs, with part-time wages and lower benefits.

What are we doing about it?

CUPE is concerned that there be adequate funding to cover transitional costs and the ongoing delivery of quality public services. We want restructuring to assure improvements in service quality, not a reduction.

The changing composition of the workforce through restructuring is also an issue for CUPE members. The public sector has been the main source of decent jobs for all workers. As public sector jobs disappear through privatization and restructuring, it’s last hired, first fired.

Workers of colour and Aboriginal workers are particularly vulnerable because they are among the most recent entrants into CUPE workplaces. They are also among the groups who depend the most on the public services that are being cut back.

CUPE has suggested some guidelines to judge the merits of proposals to restructure, merge and amalgamate. The framework takes into account the impact on services; service users; workers, jobs, and working conditions; affected institutions; communities; and, the public interest.

What success have we had?

Restructuring has led to major increases in workloads and some CUPE locals have tackled the excessive workloads created by restructuring through their collective agreements.

The workers at CUPE 2190 at the Catholic Children’s Aid Society in Toronto made a major breakthrough in contract language after a seven-week strike in the summer of 2000.

They negotiated language to place numerical caps on workload. It is the first time in Canada that a social service local has negotiated substantive protection against work overload.

The contract language has several significant features:

  1. It acknowledges that the employer is ultimately responsible for the management of excessive workload.
  2. It acknowledges that various factors such as court activity, case complexity and leaves of absence all contribute to workload.
  3. It requires that the employer fill vacancies as soon as possible.
  4. It requires periodic workload reviews by branch and by team.
  5. It requires the employer to provide clear expectations of workers.
  6. It sets up a joint union/management workload committee to make recommendations on the management of work overload.
  7. It sets numerical guidelines for caseloads. When caseloads approach the maximum levels, a workload management plan must be developed. It is the employer’s responsibility to ensure that the maximum numbers are not exceeded.
  8. Workers can initiate a workload review if they feel their workload has increased to an unmanageable level, even if their case numbers are within the set ranges.
  9. Failure by the employer to act on the undertakings of the workload review process is fully subject to grievance.
  10. The employer also agrees that workload will not exceed agreed upon levels at any time.

Is there contract language that will help?

Given the proliferation of public sector restructuring proposals, CUPE has developed collective agreement language to address members’ concerns.

  • General language

In the event the employer merges or amalgamates with any other body, the employer undertakes to ensure that:

  1. Unionized employees shall be credited with all seniority rights with the new employer.
  2. All service credits relating to vacation with pay, sick leave credits, pensionable service, and other benefits shall be recognized by the new employer.
  3. All work and services now performed by CUPE members shall continue to be performed by CUPE members with the new employer.
  4. Conditions of employment and wage rates for the new employer shall be equal to the best provisions in effect with the merging employers.
  5. No employee shall suffer a loss of employment as a result of merger.
  6. Preference in location of employment in the merged (municipality, school board, hospital, nursing home, etc.) shall be on the basis of seniority.

Since mergers and amalgamations often result in downsizing, workers need to seek protection from layoff and other negative impacts. Many CUPE locals have negotiated such protection.

In some cases the focus has been on the need for fairer and smoother transitions. Effective layoff, redeployment and technological change language is critical during these times. CUPE locals have successfully bargained language that addresses these issues.

  • Recommended layoff language

Recommended language for protection of laid off employees includes the notion of deterrence. It should be as difficult as possible for employers to lay off employees. Here’s CUPE’s language.

Layoff shall include a reduction in the normal daily or weekly hours of work of one or more full-time or regular part-time employees.

In the event of a proposed layoff of a permanent or long-term nature or the elimination of a position within the bargaining unit, the employer shall:

provide the union with no less than six (6) months notice of the proposed layoff or elimination of position; and
provide to the effective employee(s), if any, no less than six (6) months written notice of layoff or pay in lieu thereof.

In the event of a vacancy where the position within the bargaining unit has not been eliminated, the employer agrees to fill this position(s) within two (2) weeks.

  • Recommended redeployment language

A redeployment committee will be established not later than two (2) weeks after the notice of lay-off is given to the union. The mandate of the redeployment committee is to:

identify and propose alternatives to the proposed lay-off(s) or elimination of position(s), including, but not limited to, identifying work which would otherwise be bargaining unit work and is currently work contracted out by the employer;
which could be performed by bargaining unit employees who are or would otherwise be laid off;
identify vacant positions or positions which will become vacant within a twelve (12) month period and which are either
  1. within the bargaining unit;
  2. within another CUPE bargaining unit; or
  3. not covered by a collective agreement.
identify retraining needs of workers and facilitate such training for workers who are, or would otherwise be, laid off.
  • Technological change

Tech change has been introduced in many workplaces to justify the reduced staffing created by restructuring. In most cases it is introduced to reduce staffing, achieve standardization of services and cut costs.

The impact of tech change on workers and training issues remain unresolved. Changes in workload caused by new technology have not been addressed in most workplaces.

Technological change language can cushion the impacts on CUPE members. These are the protections suggested when bargaining such clauses:

  • advance notice,
  • prior consultation with the union,
  • job and/or income protection,
  • re-training and transfer opportunities, and
  • severance pay and relocation allowances.


For employers, the goal of restructuring is to create a lean, mean workplace where all workers are highly productive and committed to their work, often to the exclusion of responsibilities to families, communities or other workers.

This survival of the fittest mentality leads to highly competitive work environments and difficult relationships. The impact on workers and the public can be devastating.