How CUPE turned me against first contract legislation

I might have been in favor of the NDP Government’s first-contract legislation if I hadn’t seen what the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) did to a progressive non-profit organization in New Glasgow this fall.

Founded in 1968 by volunteers and family members, New Glasgow’s Summer Street Industries supplies a variety of vocational services to 150 intellectually handicapped men and women in New Glasgow. It enjoys a stellar reputation for caring and respectful treatment of the people it assists.

If the Dexter Government’s first contract legislation had been in force this year, those very qualities would have been sabotaged, perhaps fatally. The story is a depressing example of how far some unions can stray from the progressive social roots of their own movement.

No doubt Summer Street managers made some missteps in their handling of staff relations issues. Two years ago, this led CUPE to a successful certification drive. The negotiations that followed centered on two broad sets of issues: money and workplace rules. Talks dragged on for almost two years, so on the surface, it looked like a case that would have benefited from mandatory first-contract arbitration.

Summer Street was seriously outgunned in the negotiations. The non-profit organization’s managers had no experience with labour contracts. CUPE is Canada’s largest union with more than 600,000 members and a huge war chest. It assigned a veteran negotiator, a man who had concluded scores of collective agreements. He was very good at his job, and over the months, he gradually wore SSI down on monetary issues. One by one, the union achieved virtually all its money demands.

But the CUPE man knew nothing about people with disabilities, and he had no understanding of, or interest in, what being respectful of such people means in day to day practice. CUPE wanted to impose rigid union rules on SSI’s operations, basing hiring, promotion, and work assignments entirely on union seniority.

Many intellectually disabled adults in Nova Scotia have suffered abuse at some point in their lives. They may have been ridiculed, marginalized, ostracized, tormented by bullies, and in many cases, sexually abused.

The rigid rules CUPE demanded would have denied SSI the right to insist that a timid middle-aged woman with a history of sexual abuse be assigned to the care of a female employee with whom she had developed a rapport. Instead, a less tactful male employee could have insisted on the “right” to work with such a client—regardless of the client’s wishes.

SSI wanted a preamble stating that all contract provisions would be informed by an ethic of respect for clients. It wanted to continue its practice of including clients on all hiring boards. It wanted the unfettered right to assign staff according to the best interests of the clients.

The CUPE rep insisted no mention of clients had any place in the collective agreement.  As he put it, clients had  no more place in the contract than students would a teachers’s contract—a telling analogy, if ever there was one. The week before a strike deadline, the union ran an Orwellian advertising campaign portraying its efforts to deny disabled clients a voice in own their care as “issues of workplace democracy.”

Then, suddenly, just 24 hours before the strike deadline, the union abandoned its position on the non-monetary issues. SSI got most of the language it wanted around respect for clients. I suspect the union members at SSI—who, after all, are just as respectful of men and women with disabilities as their management counterparts—told the union they had no interest in forcing a strike in support of unhelpful union rules.

With the help of a very capable provincial mediator, union and management reached a tentative agreement at 4 a.m. on the morning of the strike deadline. This agreement broke down when the Department of Community Services refused to fund one last small monetary concession achieved by the union. The Dexter government reversed course a few hours later, and the strike was settled.

But what if CUPE had had the right to send those non-monetary issues to an arbitrator? There’s no question it would have done so, and that could have led to arbitrator—likely a lawyer, and possibly one with no more understanding of disability issues than CUPE—to issue a ruling that would have made SSI a very different place for the marginalized men and women who depend on it.

In 2009, CUPE appealed the Cape Breton Victoria District School Board’s dismissal of  Harold Douglas Delaney, a middle-aged janitor who was having sex with a 15-year-old student. Arbitrator Susan Ashley overturned Delaney’s dismissal on grounds the sex was consensual, the girl was above the legal age of consent, she was not a student at the school where the janitor worked, and the sex happened while the man was “off-duty.” Ashley did impose a three-month suspension because Delaney had handed out school pens and garbage bags without authorization.

Freebie pens worthy of punishment; sex with a student no problem. That’s what can happen when you force an arbitrator to decide matters of common sense and common decency according to the letter of the law.

The Dexter Government has presented no evidence that collective bargaining is not working in Nova Scotia. In fact, it works well, and the NDP should back away from this unwarranted gift to its union base.

[Disclosure: During the contract negotiations, I provided communications advice to Summer Street Industries on a pro bono basis.]