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Region, union at an impasse, with stoppages possible

Still without a contract, Region of Waterloo employees held a rally Monday in support of their call for better mental health support, a change to high workloads and job security.

Two Locals of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) representing some 1,200 workers will be in a strike or lockout position as of Friday. That marks the end of the 17-day period since the union filed a no-board report noting the process of conciliation had failed between the two sides.

CUPE 1883 represents about 900 workers in public health, childcare, social services, finance, IT, housing, administration, museums, libraries, bylaw enforcement, engineering, airport, landfill, and transportation.

CUPE 5191 represents about 300 paramedics and logistics staff.

The region this week warned parents that the child care centres it operates could be closed on short notice due to the labour dispute.

“We value the work of all our staff and the important role they serve in delivering and supporting programs and services across the organization each day. Our productive working relationships with bargaining units are essential in delivering these critical services. The Region of Waterloo has contingency plans in place to ensure essential services continue. All regional services that can safely operate to serve local residents will continue in the event of a labour disruption,” the region said in a released statement.

“Regional building will remain open to the public. If a strike does take place, our regionally operated child care centres… will have to close as a direct result. We understand how challenging this potential labour disruption could be for families. Centre closures would only occur in the event we are not able to negotiate a new collective agreement.”

The no-board filing and this week’s rally are messages to regional officials to step up efforts at a new contract.

“What we really hope is that this shows the Region of Waterloo how serious we are, and we want a deal by Friday.  We’re ready and we have our membership and our CUPE behind us and we want a deal for us 1883 and 5191,” said CUPE 1883 president Noelle Fletcher at the car rally in front of the region’s administrative headquarters in Kitchener.

“I’ve been working for the region for over 17 years, and I believe in the negotiation process and we’ve offered many dates to the region to sit down at the table and they have not been interested in talking to us. It’s not about money, it’s about job security, working conditions and respect for the services that we provide to the community,” added Shelley Conrad, a training specialist in community services and a member of the Local 1883

“I’m here to support my brothers and sisters in pressuring the region to come to the table and negotiate a deal that’s fair and recognizes our contribution. The community depends on us; we have been serving them diligently during the pandemic,” said Conrad, waving a symbolic pink flag through the air.

“Finally, I felt heard, because I never was allowed to be heard after we were laid off – they came and never wanted to talk to any of us again. I hope this will give us better language and protect our members so that we don’t see people with seniority walking out the door while they hire temporary and part-time people,” said Bonnie Cobb, member of Local 1883 and a speaker at the rally.

Feeling the impact of job losses, cuts to services and low morale due to the pandemic, local paramedics spoke out at the event.

“It’s more important now than ever for the region to maintain an already limited number of job shifts – this will give our paramedics the option of having a better work life balance. In the past year, we have lost approximately 25 to 30 paramedics who have resigned looking for better wages and a happier work environment. The simple facts are these: we have supported our community and want to continue doing so. Paramedics in the region have stepped up during the pandemic, and will continue to do so. In turn, we now expect our employer to do the same,” said paramedic Kevin Miller, a member of CUPE 5191, speaking at the rally, with his three sons standing beside him.

“It’s good seeing people out here supporting our cause, we are paramedics in the region and we like seeing them support us getting a fair deal. We would like to see our paramedics continue to work without disruption. That’s our preference, but were feeling painted into a corner,” said paramedic Alex Manson.

Cars continued to pass by during the rally, honking in support, waving CUPE flags to show the local workers they appreciate what they have provided throughout the pandemic. Members from other CUPE unions also showed up to show their support, as did retired members.

“This feels great. We feel we have supported the community throughout the COVID pandemic. We feel that it’s recognized – we’re feeling that love, and we’re feeling that love now with all the honking,” added Manson.

Fletcher said they attempted to bargain with the Region of Waterloo after the rally and it went nowhere, noting the region would not be continuing benefits for members when they are on strike.

Future negotiation dates have been set for both locals, with 5191’s talks set for today (July 22) and 1883’s for tomorrow. Negotiations for a new collective agreement have been underway for the past nine months.

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