The following op-ed column by USW Ontario Director Marty Warren has been published by the Belleville Intelligencer:
The lockout of security guards at Belleville’s Sir James Whitney School for the Deaf is a striking example of how Ontario’s Liberal government is not only failing in its promises to help precarious workers, it is directly contributing to the problem.
The security guards, members of the United Steelworkers, were attempting to negotiate their first collective agreement when they were locked out by their employer two weeks ago.
The security guards are among the growing ranks of Ontario’s “precarious workers” – those with insecure jobs lacking in wages, benefits and standards needed to support a household. Precarious workers now account for 40% to 50% of the province’s workforce.
Since becoming premier in early 2013, Kathleen Wynne has been assuring vulnerable workers that she sympathizes with their plight and is committed to reversing the rise in precarious employment.
“We’ve chosen to reject the notion that the growing numbers of precarious workers are an unfortunate and unavoidable economic reality of the 21st century,” Wynne has stated.
The harmful social, economic and health effects of precarious employment on millions of families are simply unacceptable, she has asserted.
“The stress of not being able to pay bills, of having to worry about keeping up with rent, obviously those are things that people shouldn’t have to contend with, and kids shouldn’t be affected because their moms and dads and family don’t have a consistent opportunity to help them with the things that they need in their lives.”
After four years however, the premier’s sympathetic words have begun to ring hollow. Workers seeking jobs with dignity see first-hand how the Wynne government is deliberately creating precarious employment within its own public-sector workplaces.
Sir James Whitney, for example, is a provincially owned and operated school. The Wynne government could lead by example, by directly employing more workers within its own facilities and ensuring they have reliable, non-precarious jobs. Instead, this government prefers to “outsource” services to private contractors.
The government subjects these workers to the race-to-the-bottom cycle of “contract flipping” – continually changing service providers and exerting downward pressure on wages, benefits and conditions. It compounds the problem by refusing to mandate living wages or basic protections such as “successor rights” for precarious workers.
Under the Wynne government, when a service contract is flipped, the new contractor does not have to honour existing employees’ wages, benefits or working conditions. The government won’t even guarantee precarious workers can keep their jobs when contracts are flipped.
Precarious workers who join a union find the Wynne government tacitly condoning contractors who lock out employees and recruit replacement workers to break the union’s resolve.
At Sir James Whitney School, years of contract flipping have denied security guards stable jobs with a livable wage. Despite extensive training and responsibilities, they earn less than $13 an hour. Their employer demands they pay $1,300 a year for modest benefits, another $300 for uniforms and that they work up to 60 hours a week – without overtime pay.
As they fight for stable jobs with dignity, the Belleville security guards will have the full support of their union and many allies in their community. Sadly, their allies don’t include a premier and government whose actions fail to match their sympathetic words.