June 20, 2010

CUPE ONTARIO : INTERNAL DIVISIONS CONSUME CONVENTION, By Helen Kennedy, Toronto, June 16-30, 2010 issue of People's Voice

(The following article is from the June 16-30, 2010 issue of People's Voice, Canada's leading communist newspaper. Articles can be reprinted free if the source is credited. Subscription rates in Canada: $30/year, or $15 low income rate; for U.S. readers - $45 US per year; other overseas readers - $45 US or $50 CDN per year. Send to: People's Voice, c/o PV Business Manager, 706 Clark Drive, Vancouver, BC, V5L 3J1.)

CUPE Ontario has emerged from its recent convention in Windsor with divisions in its leadership and budget cuts that could hamper its ability to act as one of Canada's leading social unions. The union that has been on the leading edge of many critical debates in the labour movement over the past decade has been hobbled by an accumulated deficit. And, instead of coming out strongly in defence of free collective bargaining in the face of a provincial government that is creating a wage-freeze environment, the leadership appears to be consumed by internal divisions.

The CUPE Ontario officers, President Fred Hahn and Secretary-Treasurer, Candace Rennick, were elected by the Executive Board when previous president Sid Ryan moved on to become president of the Ontario Federation of Labour in November 2009. Ryan had led CUPE Ontario for 17 years and provided much of the impetus within CUPE for a strong fightback against privatization, for supports for coordinated bargaining and for being a staunch defender of Palestine.

In Ontario, the March budget did nothing to stem the corporate tax cuts, which, according to Hugh Mackenzie at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, will cost an additional $2.5 billion by 2012-13. Savings of course will be taken by implementing a wage freeze for all provincially funded organizations (eg. front-line, low-paid social and community service organizations) and all provincial collective agreements that expire over the next two years. Transit funding to expand Toronto's sorely needed infrastructure was slashed and postponed. The poor will see fewer benefits with a miserly 1% increase in social assistance combined with the elimination of the "special diet program" that thousands have relied on to supplement their families' nutritional intake.

However, from the onset of the Convention, the CUPE Ontario budget defined much of the debate. In her first report, Rennick revealed that CUPE Ontario had a deficit of just over $1 million and that CUPE Ontario was "insolvent." While the fiscal year deficit was close to $500,000, deficits from past years stood at over $500,000.

The current year deficit was the result of a variety of factors. Several staff in the CUPE Ontario office have been on extended sick leaves and their positions were back-filled through book-offs. The budget overage in this category was almost $300,000. Other areas in which CUPE Ontario spent more than budgeted included $85,000 in strike support, over $100,000 in campaign costs that were disallowed by the National, over $100,000 in convention costs, and increased translation costs. Despite losing its largest affiliate (Local 79, inside municipal workers in Toronto), dues income exceeded revenue targets, due to the decision at the 2008 Convention to convert to a percentage system which results in automatic increases with wage settlements.

Rennick's proposed solution to the financial "crisis" was that CUPE Ontario had requested CUPE National co-sign a loan to assist the Division in "offering relief and a path to financial stability." CUPE National's conditions? "A review of [CUPE Ontario's] finances and operations to better understand the seriousness of the situation and to help in identifying the most accurate amount of financing required." An auditing firm from Winnipeg was brought it to conduct the review. The result, published and distributed to the floor as the "Management Letter for Financial Structuring", outlined 103 recommendations, that if implemented would result in the National's signature on a loan agreement.

Other recommendations include gapping and staff lay-offs, making it more difficult to book-off activists, especially those from smaller and more female-dominated locals, and establishing a "budgeting culture" at CUPE Ontario.

The Action Caucus, which met at the convention, were alarmed with the strategy that would make CUPE Ontario more dependent on the National Union, given the latter's move to the right over the past seven years. The Caucus considered a suggestion from CUPE 3902 (University of Toronto) for locals to lend the Division the money needed to address the deficit - a plan that would allow CUPE Ontario to retain its fighting activism. As the convention ended, the Executive Board had met with those locals interested in pursing this possibility.

Was there any good news coming from the convention? Aside from the very few resolutions being passed, the Convention did pass a 2010 Action Plan that outlines a progressive fightback. Priorities for CUPE Ontario include building resistance to the Liberal government's "Open Ontario" plan, reaffirming a commitment to "no-concession" bargaining, strengthening sectoral and pattern bargaining, fighting privatization, strengthening collaboration with social movements, defend defined-benefit pension plans and fight to win progressive candidates to City Councils and School Boards in the upcoming municipal elections.

The newly elected Executive Board needs to play a lead role in moving CUPE Ontario forward by implementing the 2010 Action Plan, despite the gloomy internal budget picture. CUPE Ontario needs to be at the forefront of a massive fightback against the provincial government's attack on public services. Strengthening the Action Caucus within CUPE Ontario is also essential. It is also the best way to strengthen left-centre unity and shore up CUPE Ontario as one of Canada's leading social unions.

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