Feb 07, 2012

Delegates call for a new ‘workers mandate’

RICHMOND—CUPE’s B.C. regional strategic bargaining conference wrapped up on February 3 with delegates determined to work more closely across CUPE sectors and in a united, common front across the public sector as contract negotiations progress in 2012.

At Friday’s closing plenary, delegates representing each CUPE sector reported back on key priorities and strategies for this year’s round of bargaining. All agreed that no sector can achieve fair and equitable collective agreements entirely on its own; that CUPE sectors must work together, and with the HEU and BCGEU, to develop a common front across the public sector and the labour movement at large.

Delegates urged full participation in the BC Federation of Labour by CUPE locals and support for the work of CUPE’s representatives on the BC Fed’s public sector working group. Most importantly, they called for CUPE’s bargaining strategy to focus entirely on the union’s goals at the table and promote a “workers mandate” rather than allowing the government mandate to set the terms of discussion.

There were several recommendations on member mobilization, communications strategy, and political action. Delegates also discussed bargaining priorities, including cost of living adjustments for wages, pension improvements, casual rights, pay equity and training for technological change.

In his closing remarks, CUPE BC secretary-treasurer Mark Hancock praised delegates for their hard work and said they could return to their locals with a renewed sense of pride in their union.

“Without a doubt, this conference has been a huge success—right from the opening plenary,” he said, adding that CUPE made an important statement by having representatives of the BCGEU and HEU sit with us and share common ground.

For many locals, however, the biggest challenge going forward remains having their concerns heard by employers who have no interest in free and fair collective bargaining.  Hancock lamented the high number of “bad employers” who have refused to budge on issues of basic fairness—the lockout of library workers and student society support staff being just two examples.

“You don’t expect those kinds of things from some organizations,” said Hancock. “And what we see, more and more, is employers that are buffered: whether it’s the provincial government with its bargaining agents, or employers who hire [outside consultants] to do their work, the employer is buffered from us. What we need—and what the folks who receive our services need—is a table where we can talk to the people who actually make the decisions. If we’re not talking to the folks who make the decisions, then what’s the point of sitting down at the table?”

Hancock touched on various aspects of bargaining strategy where CUPE continues to make progress, noting that the union can learn much from recent history.

“The 1990s, when we had Glen Clark and Mike Harcourt as premiers, were not bad for us,” he said. “We saw decent wage increases, the accords in the provincial sectors, and improvements to benefits. A lot of good things happened, but unfortunately we lost a bit of the fight in those years. We didn’t have to mobilize as much as we did in the ‘80s. And then we had the years of Gordon Campbell.”

Hancock reminded delegates of the point in 2002 when, after a breakdown in bargaining that followed a legislative assault by the Campbell Liberals, CUPE shut down the UBC campus. The government blinked, he said, and CUPE BC went on to develop local action plans, tour the province and spread the message of solidarity.

“That made a difference,” he said. “So when the HEU went out in 2004, we were there. And in 2005, a lot of us were in Winnipeg for the National convention when the teachers walked out. Half of us from B.C. left convention. Then, with those rallies at the Pacific Coliseum and in Cloverdale, we showed we were able to shut down the province in such a way to support the teachers. This just shows how we can make a difference, we have made a difference and we need to continue to make a difference.”

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