FOR FIRST TIME EVER,
ONTARIO'S MOST COLLABORATIVE UNION TAKES STRIKE VOTE
By Susanna Kelley
For the first time ever, nearly 12,000 scientists, veterinarians, pharmacists, economists and even chaplains working for the Ontario government are taking a strike vote.
"We did not create the deficit. And you're not going to balance the budget on our backs, or the livelihoods of ourselves or the health and wellbeing of our families," Gary Gannage, head of AMAPCEO - the Association of Management, Administrative and Professional Crown Employees of Ontario - warned Premier Kathleen Wynne.
The current Ontario deficit sits at $11.7 billion. Finance Minister Charles Sousa has pledged to eliminate it by 2017-2018.
There is a disconnect between Premier Wynne's public protestations that she doesn't want a war with labour and what has been happening at the bargaining table, Gannage says.
"I've been in the OPS (Ontario public service) for thirty four years, I have never seen an environment where there seems to be such a mean spirited, vindictive attack on employees rights and retirees, employees and retirees terms and conditions of employment, terms and conditions of employment and benefits," says Mr. Gannage.
"I don't know whether or not it's something that is very much being directed out of the premier's office or if somebody somewhere else is on somewhat of a folly just trying to show how tough they can be," he says.
The move to take a strike vote is extremely unusual because the professionals in AMAPCEO have always eschewed withdrawing their services in the past.
"In twenty three years we've never (gone on strike.) Our approach to labour relations (has been to) try to find a more collaborative approach to resolving any problems that we may have, and any difficulties in relationships. That has succeeded for the most part."
However, there is a sea-change in the attitude of AMAPCEO members, he says, who have already absorbed two years of zero per cent increases.
Now the government is asking for another four years without any wage increase.
Given inflation, that means the professionals would be losing money for six years before another opportunity to negotiate could give them an increase.
In addition, the union says the government wants to cut the number of professionals eligible for merit pay, and make it harder to get.
It says 60 per cent of those currently entitled to merit pay would receive no merit increase whatsoever under a new contract proposed by the Liberal government.
As well, extended health benefits to pay for for things like physiotherapy (which the government stopped paying under Dalton McGuinty,) seeing a psychologist, foot doctor or chiropractor would be severely cut back.
The government says any adjustment to wages or benefits must come out of current compensation levels.
The average wage for an AMAPCEO member is $85,000 per year, not including benefits.
However, Mr. Gannage says that is significantly behind what they would be paid in the private sector.
The members are said to be especially angry that other unions bargaining with the government won compensation increases at a time when the Liberals declared their goal to be zero increases.
For example, members of the Ontario Provincial Police Association (OPPA) were awarded raises totaling 8.75 per cent this year. (However, that actually averages out to less than three per cent a year, because the police had had no increases for the previous two years in their contract.)
As AMAPCEO wages have been frozen for the last two years as well, it sees the government as discriminating against it in not matching the OPPA settlement.
Taking a strike vote doesn't necessarily mean a work stoppage is inevitable.
Unions often take strike votes to ratchet up the pressure on employers when bargaining is going nowhere.
"We've never done it in our history... AMAPCEO doesn't want job action. We're being forced into this action by the behaviour of the employer" says Mr. Gannage.
"The members want (a) fair and reasonable, voluntary, collective agreement... A voluntary settlement."
"We want to negotiate a deal,” says Mr. Gannage.