‘We live in a moment where everything is at stake’ – CUPE President Hancock

Canadian Union of Public Employees strikers are locked out from municipal buildings in Black River-Matheson by the Mayor

‘WE LIVE in a moment which feels like everything is at stake,’ Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) National President Mark Hancock told convention delegates in Alberta on Saturday.

‘We are fighting our way through an enormous cost-of-living crisis, workers are feeling desperate and anxious,’ he said.
‘Most people can’t remember a time when it was this difficult to put a roof over their head, put gas in their car, and put food on their table.’
But Hancock also noted that as the largest union in Canada, CUPE has the power to fight for workers against the impacts of inflation.
‘We have proven time and time again that we are up for anything. Across the country in the past few years, we have shown how much we can accomplish when we stand together.’
Hancock also took aim at Alberta Premier Danielle Smith, saying she is ignoring the key issues of workers in the province.
‘Instead of working to rebuild health care, instead of addressing the cost-of-living crisis, Danielle Smith is attacking some of the most vulnerable young people in our society,’ Hancock said.
With three-quarters of the Alberta public service in bargaining, Hancock said 2024 is a key moment to fight for better wages and benefits.
‘My friends, we have the power and the responsibility to fight inflation and help our members put food on the table. We have the power and responsibility to build better communities by protecting and strengthening public services.’
CUPE members staged a protest outside Smith’s Medicine Hat constituency office, calling on her to address the cost-of-living crisis by investing in public services and ending restrictive mandates that are keeping workers’ wage increases well below inflation.
Over 200 attendees heard impassioned speeches from front-line workers about the toll low wages and understaffing are taking on their lives.
Several leaders from other unions, including HSAA, AUPE and the Alberta Federation of Labour spoke about the common struggle that all workers in Alberta are facing and the need to take on Danielle Smith and the UCP (United Conservative Party) together.

  • Municipal workers in CUPE are at the heart of a bitter dispute where basic social dialogue principles have broken down and municipal workers’ collective bargaining rights are being violated.

It all started in October 2023 as Mayor Bender of Black River-Matheson sought to unilaterally impose a concessionary wage grid that would result in an over $2/hour on average cut for new municipal workers and union members, establishing different pay for equal work resulting in de facto inter-generational discrimination.
As CUPE Local 1490 members rejected this unilateral offer, the Mayor locked them out without warning in the middle of the harsh Canadian winter.
That lockout resulted in a strike. Rather than seek a negotiated solution and agree on a fair collective agreement for both parties through good faith dialogue, Mayor Bender replaced striking workers with contract workers to break their industrial action.
Additionally, on 15 February the Township issued a trespass order banning 14 striking CUPE municipal workers, every single member of CUPE and all CUPE employees – Canada’s largest union – from three Black River-Matheson buildings, including the town hall, local hockey arena and a public worksite, a disproportionate and unfair response to a local labour dispute that should be settled by good faith collective bargaining.
On February 22, the Township was forced to modify the trespass order as CUPE responsibly pointed out it would compromise public safety by banning unionised emergency staff like paramedics from the public spaces.
The trespass order now bans all CUPE members, ‘excepting members of any CUPE Local that is in the process of providing emergency services.’
This demonstrates the absurdity of the move and the fact that it has a potential to jeopardise essential public services the Black River-Matheson community needs and relies on.
In a shocking candid video recorded in November by one of the striking workers on the picket line, Mayor Bender can be heard saying to them that they were ‘getting closer and closer to you being pretty hungry’ and that they should ‘start looking’ for other jobs.
Also, in a letter sent directly to members in January 2024, the Chief Administrative Officer of Black River-Matheson, Chris Wray,  encouraged striking workers to go back to work and accept the conditions posed by the Township without negotiations, writing: ‘The Township will now accept for re-employment any staff member who is prepared to agree to the following terms’.
These new conditions would make numerous key protections contained in the previous collective agreement negotiated with CUPE Local 1490 null and void.
Since the commencement of labour action, three CUPE Local 1490 members have been criminally charged for actions related to their participation in legal strike activities.
CUPE raised this with the Commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police on 8th March, reminding that CUPE Local 1490 is engaged in a legal strike making a legitimate call for better wages for workers who deliver important services.
These actions by the Township against striking municipal workers by are at odds with the fact that strikes are a legal labour action protected under Canadian constitutional law; and recognised as a legitimate form of peaceful protest protected under international labour law.
The 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects freedom of association as one of the fundamental freedoms for all Canadians.
Furthermore, the Freedom of Association Convention (C. 87) and the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention (C.98) of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) are fundamental international labour standards and human rights obligations of States.
ILO C. 87 recognises that workers have a fundamental right to engage in strikes as a means to peacefully pursue their economic and social interests. Canada is an ILO member and has ratified both fundamental conventions namely in 1972 and 2017, it is therefore held accountable to comply with them.
Finally, governments have an obligation to respect picket lines established during lawful strikes.
Picketing is a legitimate form of peaceful protest and is protected under international labour standards. It is essential that authorities refrain from any interference that could undermine the right of workers to engage in such activities.
CUPE has taken this bitter labour dispute up nationwide and is challenging it legally.
‘We got our legal advice and we’ve already made the decision that CUPE will challenge this improper and indefensible move; challenge the trespass notice by supplementing our existing Unfair Labour Practice complaint; and we intend to challenge the notice before the Superior Court,’ said Fred Hahn, President of CUPE Ontario.
‘Local 1490 knows we have their back, and this Township will know that what they’re doing won’t stand,’ he said.
On 19 March PSI General Secretary Daniel Bertossa wrote to Mayor Bender demanding a swift, negotiated and fair resolution to this conflict.
‘Mayor Bender, this is a violation of the principle of good faith bargaining – and we urge you to reconsider your position.
‘We are extremely concerned about this situation and we call upon you to end this unnecessary escalation,’ he said.
‘This way all Black River-Matheson municipal workers can continue to deliver essential, equitable, quality, public services to your shared community and you will be able to continue to attract and retain municipal workers that are more than ever essential.’
Bertossa also raised this case in a letter addressed to the Ontario State and Federal Ministries of Labour David Piccini and Seamus O’Regan.
‘Minister, we are extremely concerned about this situation and we call upon you to intervene through your good offices with the Township of Black River-Matheson so that this unnecessary escalation can come to a halt,’ he said.
‘We urge the Canadian government to ensure full compliance with the fundamental labour and human rights of these workers.
‘Upholding these principles not only fosters a culture of respect for labour rights but also contributes to the promotion of social dialogue and peaceful conflict resolution,’ he concluded.