The Sector Council Conference provided an opportunity for CUPE members in the Social Services and Child Care sectors to discuss the big issues they are currently facing, including violence in the workplace, mental health, and the impact of inadequate funding on services and workers.
The issue of violence in the workplace was especially prominent. CUPE members shared their experiences of violence and harassment at the hands of clients, co-workers, and managers. They described inadequate reactions from management, reporting systems that had completely broken down, and of bullying behaviour that was simply tolerated as part of the job. Many spoke of the stress and the toll on mental health of putting up with constant verbal abuse at work.
Andréane Chénier, CUPE National Health and Safety Representative, urged members to report everything. Reporting helps to identify common patterns and to investigate incidents so that they can be prevented in the future. Chénier also underscored the resources available from CUPE to ensure that collective agreements have strong anti-violence and anti-harassment language, as well as the role of Health and Safety Committees in creating a safe workplace. Participants also praised CUPE’s workplace training on health and safety, and shared stories about campaigns to inform workers of their right to refuse dangerous and unsafe work.
The stress of inadequate funding, provincial downloading, funding cuts, and attempted re-organizations was also very clear. Workers spoke of trying to do their job with fewer staff and less one-on-one time with clients, of the pressure to move towards for-profit models, and of growing numbers of precarious workers. Participants felt this was compromising the quality of care while creating stress and mental health issues for workers. One of the solutions identified was wall-to-wall organizing to ensure that all workers, including part-time and casual workers, are part of the union and benefit from the protection of the collective agreement. CUPE is also fighting back at the political level with campaigns to ensure that local, provincial and federal governments properly value and fund social services and child care.
Representatives from CUPE locals also shared stories about their campaigns around organizing, fair wages, and pay equity. Participants discussed how these campaigns could provide a template for future campaigns addressing local priorities.
Throughout the Conference, participants discussed the challenges as well as the benefits of organizing. Members shared how solidarity and feeling like they are part of a team helped them to feel happier and less stressed, how CUPE provides crucial support in dealing with health and safety challenges, and how a unified front is important in obtaining better pay and better benefits. But members also recognized that having people outside the union allows employers to divide and conquer or to create a two-tier system. There remains important work to be done in organizing the child care and social service sectors.