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Children's mental health workers ratify agreement

Striking workers at Sudbury Child and Family Centre will head back to work after members of OPSEU Local 666 gave the green light to a new four-year agreement Dec. 14. More than 80 workers voted on the tentative agreement reached Dec. 9.
After almost four weeks of being on strike, employees with Sudbury Child and Family Centre have ratified an agreement File photo.
Striking workers at Sudbury Child and Family Centre will head back to work after members of OPSEU Local 666 gave the green light to a new four-year agreement Dec. 14.

More than 80 workers voted on the tentative agreement reached Dec. 9. The workers have been on strike for almost four weeks, and all of them are eager to get back to their clients, OPSEU Local 666 spokesperson Spencer Lucas said.

The agency provides mental health treatment for more than 2,300 children and youth in Sudbury, Espanola, Chapleau and Manitoulin. Workers have been on strike since Nov. 21, after talks between the union and the employer broke down.

Lucas said he wasn't sure about the percentage of workers who voted in favour of accepting the new contract, but it was definitely in favour of ratification. Dr. Bertrand Guindon, acting executive director for Sudbury Child and Family Centre, said he was also looking for those numbers even 12 hours after the vote.

“It was complicated, and if I could sum it up in one word, I would say we are proud,” Lucas said. “We are proud of what we did and how we accomplished it.”

The union was able to achieve some of the basic items it identified during the bargaining process, Lucas said. Hours of operation were one of the major sticking points, and the basic problem wasn't the idea of working after hours, because employees already do work after hours. Job security was another sticking point, he said.

“The employer wanted to change the hours of operation in a way that he wasn't willing to explain or show,” Lucas said. “The reality is, signing the contract previously would have given him carte blanche to sign any worker to any hours at any time for any reason. That was just unacceptable.”

Through the negotiations, the contract now has language that protects workers from such a scenario.

The new contract language is “not even close to perfect, but it's completely more acceptable than what was proposed,” Lucas said, and added there was no movement on money, and the little that was offered is what was accepted.

“That means workers won't be receiving a raise this year or next year at all,” he said, and it comes on the heels of accepting no money in the previous contract that just expired. “Yet, we were willing to sign the tentative agreement just to get back to work.”

The contract between the workers and the employer ended in March, and the two parties negotiated for several days during the summer up to and including Nov. 18, Guindon said. They finally resumed talks on Dec. 9, and had a marathon of negotiations which lasted about 17 hours straight to come out with a memorandum of settlement.

“Both parties wanted to find a resolution to this conflict, and we did what was necessary to achieve that end,” he said. “We were not interested in a strike, either. (Now that a deal has been reached), we are looking at the future very favourably. The question isn't about whether we have good staffing, because we know we do.”

The ability for the employer to schedule evening hours wasn't being recognized and there was no room for negotiating, Guindon said, which is one of the reasons negotiations came to a halt Nov. 18. Entry qualifications was another issue, and the employer decided to withdraw its proposition.

“We're ecstatic,” he said. “We mutually agreed this is the best deal from an employer standpoint in terms of what we can sustain and remain financially accountable and responsible to our clients. I have to believe that the union members also think it was a good deal if they signed it.

“There may be individuals who may think otherwise, but in the end, they have a negotiating committee that recommended this deal. I would not have signed a deal I thought was inappropriate or could not be supported by my board of directors.”

None of the workers wanted a work disruption, Lucas said. But, when it was announced that the parties had a tentative agreement, “no one cheered.”

“We were happy, and if you were to ask the frontline striker, getting back to the bargaining table is something we were hoping for. We didn't cheer because on some level we realized we didn't need to be out in the first place. The contract we signed is something we could have reached six months ago, but we went that long without any meaningful negotiations until last Friday.”

If anything positive can be taken from this entire situation, it's the fact morale among striking workers over the past four weeks has been nothing short of “miraculous,” Lucas said. The morale among workers has been waning for years, but a strike was a “weird” opportunity to get everyone together and build solidarity.

“What we got (in the new deal), we got reluctantly,” Lucas said. “Any other movement from the employer would have come with kicking and screaming, and it would likely have meant being on strike until mid to late January at the earliest, which translated into escalating financial hardships and hardships for the community, and it was a price we weren't willing to pay.”

Posted by Arron Pickard