CUPE’s approximately 170,000 members in the municipal sector work in water, roads, planning, public health, childcare and more. They make up just over 20 per cent of CUPE’s membership and are identified primarily as “inside” or “outside” workers. CUPE municipal members do work that touches the lives of most Canadians every day – from waste removal to snow removal to water treatment.
CUPE has over 1,100 municipal bargaining units across Canada, covering more than 20,000 job classifications. About one-third of local government staff work in casual, part-time or auxiliary jobs. Of the other two-thirds, about 20 per cent work in seasonal positions averaging nine months of the year. Women aged 25-54 working in part-time, auxiliary or casual positions are the fastest-growing group in the sector.
There are more than 3,700 municipalities across Canada, each governed by elected mayors and councillors. For some services – like water and wastewater treatment or other large infrastructure functions – municipalities are grouped together in higher-tier regions or counties. In remote communities without a municipal structure, the province establishes district service delivery boards. Municipalities and the laws governing them are created and regulated at the provincial level.
CUPE locals report a shift to more precarious work over the past 15 years. Municipalities are replacing full-time jobs with part-time temporary jobs that lack full access to benefits and pensions. Many CUPE members are working multiple precarious jobs to make ends meet. Employers are using the retirement of the baby boomers’ generation to further reduce the workforce by leaving jobs unfilled, or to replace good jobs with precarious jobs. This can lead to workplaces with two-tiered pay and benefits.
In many communities, municipal services are being contracted out and privatized. Targets include waste removal, parks maintenance, transportation and snow removal. In cities like Winnipeg and Toronto, privatized solid waste collection has resulted in deteriorating service quality, hidden costs and violations of basic labour and health and safety standards. In Moncton, NB, in 2019, the city council renewed a contract with French multi-national Veolia for the operation of its drinking water system, despite reported gaps in maintenance and a significant blue-green algae problem.
At the same time, in other communities the veneer of privatization seems to be wearing off. Municipalities that have rejected privatization include White Rock, BC (drinking water), Wood Buffalo, AB (transit services), and even Moncton, NB (wastewater treatment) under a previous administration.
Recently in Mapleton, ON, thanks to the work of local activists and CUPE members, the town council rejected a bid by the Canada Infrastructure Bank to underwrite a public-private partnership (P3) for a new water and wastewater system, opting instead to finance the project from its own budget. CUPE members in the municipal sector demonstrate every day why quality public service provision is preferable to out-sourced, for-profit contracts.
P3s and other inefficient and anti-democratic privatization schemes do not serve us well, and it is time to move past the tired and counter-factual obsession with for-profit public services and infrastructure. The Canada Infrastructure Bank has recently provided direct low-cost financing to a number of municipalities to upgrade to zero-emission bus fleets and to complete green retrofits to municipal buildings. This is a better way. CUPE calls on the federal and provincial governments to abandon all efforts to privatize municipal services and assets.
Canada’s cities and towns are facing an infrastructure crisis caused by aging infrastructure, increased demand due to population growth, and external pressures like climate change. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities estimates that the combined infrastructure deficit is between $110 and $270 billion. In recent federal budgets, a significant amount of money has been earmarked for necessary infrastructure upgrades. This is a positive development. However, the federal government is still encouraging P3s for infrastructure projects via the Canada Infrastructure Bank and the new Canada Growth Fund, and only a portion of the promised infrastructure funding has actually been spent.
To build and operate infrastructure – both the hard infrastructure that powers and organizes our communities, as well as the “soft” infrastructure that cares for and nourishes residents – municipalities need direct funding and low-cost financing from the federal government. That is the fastest and most cost-effective model for building the strong, safe, and inclusive communities we all want to live in.
The Covid-19 pandemic, and resulting financial turbulence, have demonstrated more clearly than ever that municipalities need more sustainable, diverse and growing revenue sources than they currently have. Our local governments need a fairer share of provincial and federal tax revenues to address the infrastructure deficit, to deal with their growing responsibilities, to ensure and enforce public health, and to pay for proper operations and maintenance. CUPE supports municipalities in their quest for a better deal on municipal revenue options and will be engaged with further research, discussions and advocacy on this issue.
While the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in a number of layoffs in the municipal sector, CUPE expects most of these jobs to return over time.
CUPE is the main union representing local government workers across Canada. CUPE has organized most major centres, including Canada’s ten largest cities.
Municipal locals bargain with their municipal council. Many municipalities have more than one CUPE local, representing different parts of the public sector such as inside and outside workers. In some larger urban areas, CUPE locals represent members of more than one municipality. For example, in the York Region, CUPE 905 represents members in ten Ontario municipalities. A similar situation exists in Metro Vancouver.
CUPE locals in BC, Alberta, and Ontario coordinate by bargaining sector or region. Many locals successfully use “lead local” strategies. In recent years, locals in Alberta and Prince Edward Island have made gains using the lead local strategy.
Like other public sector workers, municipal workers face a misperception, promoted by employer organizations, that public servants have good pay, great benefits and easy jobs. This campaign of misinformation makes it difficult to take the hard bargaining stand necessary to achieve significant gains, especially in periods of high inflation. In addition, austerity budgets in many provinces add to the challenges for municipal locals at the bargaining table.
Contracting out and job security
At the bargaining table, municipal employers are trying to enable contracting out by weakening job security language or strengthening management rights clauses. In 2020, the City of Toronto’s municipal locals fought off another attempt by the City to eliminate job security protection in bargaining, something the employer has attempted in multiple rounds of bargaining. CUPE municipal locals in Atlantic Canada recently concluded lengthy strikes and lockouts with improvements to their collective agreements, demonstrating solidarity and resolve even during the Covid-19 pandemic. CUPE members in a number of municipalities have had department-by-department core service reviews, which are often a precursor to privatization. These reviews often recommend nothing other than unnecessary cuts to important services for the sake of saving a few dollars, and CUPE municipal locals have led the push-back against these austerity programs.
Despite challenges in municipal bargaining, CUPE settlements continue to win wage increases. Current high levels of inflation diminish these gains, making strong bargaining campaigns even more important. Municipal locals also continue to gain incremental improvements to benefits plans. We remain wary, however, of proposals that inequitably benefit current versus new employees, creating two-tiered compensation packages and damaging worker solidarity.
CUPE’s municipal locals have worked to ensure a high level of retirement security, with over 96 per cent of members eligible to enroll in a pension or employer-contributed retirement plan. Three-quarters of those members have a defined benefit plan.
Many municipal employees are members of large, multi-employer defined benefit pension plans, like the Municipal Pension Plan in BC and the Municipal Employees Benefit Program in Manitoba. These plans are strong and sustainable. While pension plans were hurt by the 2008 global economic crisis, leading to temporary funding challenges, some governments and employers, along with anti-public sector groups, used these challenges to demand benefit cuts to municipal pension plans. Despite showing signs of recovery from 2008, we are preparing to defend against further attacks on defined benefit pension plans as part of a COVID-19 spending backlash.
Some Canadian pension plans have become major investors in privatized infrastructure around the world. Now, privatized infrastructure that is owned and operated by pension funds may be coming to Canada. The Canada Infrastructure Bank has been set up to attract major pension fund investment in P3 infrastructure. With the support of the bank, a P3 light rail project in Montreal is funded primarily by the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, which manages the Quebec Pension Plan funds – Canada’s second-largest pension plan. This is a form of privatization that CUPE opposes.
At the national level, CUPE works with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and other stakeholder groups on common issues. With the Council of Canadians, CUPE advocates for the protection of municipal water resources and against the privatization of water and wastewater services. CUPE municipal members have been involved in the Blue Communities campaign, which asks municipalities to reject privatization, recognize water as a human right, eliminate punitive water service disconnection policies for residents who are unable to pay, and stop using bottled water in public buildings and at public events. The Council of Canadians was also a strong ally in the campaign against the proposed water and wastewater P3 in Mapleton, Ontario.
At the 2022 Federation of Canadian Municipalities annual meeting, CUPE hosted a workshop that highlighted how municipalities can apply an equity lens to public services such as transit, housing, childcare, and to their sustainability goals. Recently in Montreal, CUPE partnered with other labour unions, public sector advocacy organizations, and community and Indigenous groups to advance a pro-public agenda, one that envisions a strong and proactive public sector delivering water, power, childcare, education, affordable housing, banking and more. Locally, municipal members are building relationships with elected leaders and community groups that have helped our members make gains at the bargaining table and protect vital public services.
Municipal elections are very important for CUPE members working in the sector. Our municipal councils influence the quality of our lives in our communities and at work. CUPE members work closely with other labour organizations to elect municipal officials who will protect and enhance public services and public service delivery. We can truly say, “Vote as if your job depended on it”!