Defending workers’ rights while advocating for a new approach

How do we determine value in Ontario? This question typically drives the development of economic policy, but in today’s Ontario, it also frames labour relations. If one were to listen to some politicians, lobby groups and thinktanks, one would assume that workers in this province were overpaid, underworked and slacking off. The value of work, under this framework, is only understood through the narrow lens of economics and “productivity”.

Did you know that the Government of Ontario already pays less per capita for our public service compared with every other Canadian federal and provincial jurisdiction?

In spite of operating such a lean enterprise, politicians and others continue to demonize public sector salaries, pensions and benefits as extravagant and unaffordable. Even more outrageous is the myth propagated by many that a bloated, greedy public service was a significant factor contributing to the current provincial government deficit. Such a view ignores the fact of the 2008 recession and the need for governments to step in with public spending to save the economy.

Public services are among Ontario’s greatest assets, and the people who deliver these services are relied upon by citizens to make these services work.

For the past 22 years, the Association of Management, Administrative Profession Crown Employees of Ontario (AMAPCEO) has represented the interests of professional public service workers in Ontario government ministries, offices of the Legislative Assembly, crown corporations and public agencies. We advocate on behalf of 12,000 public sector workers in over 130 communities across the province and in 11 cities outside Canada. In addition to performing the traditional roles of a union, (collective bargaining and dispute resolution), AMAPCEO has tried to engage government, employers and other decision makers in a broader discussion about the value of public service and the importance of the work that is done by the employees who deliver those services.

AMAPCEO-represented employees are professionals who “make government work”. We are nonpartisan public servants who provide policy advice and supervise programs regardless of which political party forms the government. Members include policy analysts, program supervisors, auditors, education officers, IT architects and specialists, mediators, arbitrators, racing judges, psychiatric patient advocates, chaplains, inspectors, investigators and scientists – to name just a few. Our members’ work directly impacts the quality of life of everyone who lives in Ontario.

We recognize that governments need to get their fiscal houses in order, but most public sector employees have contributed significant “cost savings” in recent bargaining, including years of zero salary increases for those working directly for government. Our members feel they have more than paid their fair share towards reducing costs. Further attacks, including attempts to extract non-monetary concessions that contribute nothing to the bottom line, are why unions such as AMAPCEO have to push back.

By definition, labour unions collectively unite employees to defend rights, uphold standards, improve working conditions for all, and advocate for human rights. Without organized labour, who would stand up and fight for workers? Who else would argue for the long-term value of a living wage, good benefits, retirement provisions and job security – for everyone in society, not just those who happen to belong to a union.

If we are to envision a new approach to labour relations and reframe the construct of “value”, it must start with collaboration and not capitulation. What’s needed is a mindset shift that acknowledges the workers that make this province function.

Considering the current labour relations climate, there is an even greater need to continue to promote and expand labour rights and unions for everyone. The new Ontario government, indeed all governments across the country, have an opportunity to adopt a different, collaborative approach in labour relations – an approach that is long overdue.

In the meantime, AMAPCEO and other unions will continue to defend workers’ rights, to stand up for our workplaces and those who deliver the valuable public services that Ontarians expect and rely on every day.

garyGannageGary Gannage is the President of the Association of Management, Administrative Profession Crown Employees of Ontario (AMAPCEO), which represents over 12,000 workers throughout Ontario. In the 19 years since Gary was elected President, AMAPCEO’s membership has almost tripled, to eight bargaining units in the broader public sector.