Black River Matheson
Black River Matheson This article is more than 1 month old
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A Small Ontario Town Banned Every Member of Country’s Largest Union From Public Buildings

“Never seen anything like this before”

A small northern Ontario town banned every single member of the Canadian Union of Public Employees from its town hall and two other public buildings amid a lengthy strike. 

CUPE called the ban an “improper and indefensible” attack on the constitutional right to picket and will challenge the township’s ban in Ontario’s Superior Court.

Black-River Matheson issued the trespass order banning 14 striking CUPE municipal workers, every single member of CUPE and all CUPE employees from three buildings, including the town hall, local hockey arena and a public worksite on February 15.

The township was forced to modify the trespass order on February 22 when CUPE pointed out it would compromise public safety by banning unionized 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.”

Trespass order issued to CUPE in Black River Matheson

Candace Rennick, CUPE’s National Secretary-Treasurer, says the ban is a “gross overreach.”

“It’s pretty ridiculous,” Rennick told PressProgress. “We think it’s actually illegal.”

“Tensions are continuously escalating because the mayor and the CAO (are) focused on these gross overreaching tactics that are meant to bully and intimidate our members, rather than focusing on good faith efforts to actually achieve a negotiated collective agreement.”

The ban is the latest in a series of escalating tensions between the town of Black River-Matheson, its 14 striking municipal workers and the broader community. The striking municipal workers, members of CUPE 1490, are fighting a two-tiered wage grid that they say will drive down wages for new hires.

“CUPE doesn’t bargain concessions. We certainly do not, in any case, accept two tier wage grids in our collective agreements,” Rennick said.

CUPE union representative Tammy Robinson was named in the township’s trespass order. Robinson says the union ban and tensions in the town are ”very unusual.”

“I’ve been in this role for 12 years and I’ve been at some very difficult tables,” Robinson told PressProgress. “I have never seen anything like this before.”

“This is not about what the issues are on the table anymore – or maybe it never was. This is a power struggle,” Robinson says. “It’s very unusual.”

The township issued the ban after it canceled a town council meeting two days earlier, citing “safety concerns.” A group of 20 CUPE members from Toronto planned to attend the town council that day in support of the 14 striking workers to demand an end to the four month strike. Workers called the town’s cancellation cowardly.

The union members have their own safety concerns. CUPE reported two striking workers were hit by a pickup truck crossing the picket line on February 14. Weeks earlier, two township staff were charged with stalking union members

The town’s director of infrastructure services has been charged with “criminal harassment and dangerous operation of a motor vehicle after allegedly accelerating at a stop sign, nearly hitting the locked-out workers.” The town’s executive assistant in finance also faces charges of criminal harassment and assault with a weapon. Both will appear in court next month.

Mayor’s Labour Relations Strategy in Question

The labour dispute is also a flashpoint of community frustration over mayor Doug Bender’s leadership.

In November, Bender told the picketing workers they were “getting closer and closer to you being pretty hungry” and that they should “start looking” for other jobs.

In a letter posted February 23, Bender disputed CUPE’s claims that the picket line has been dangerous. Bender also accused the union of creating an unsafe work environment for scabs and managers and said the town has requested an Occupational Health and Safety investigation. The town has also hired a private investigation firm to “investigate the strike/lockout related conduct of persons on social media and on the picket line.”

“Egregious conduct will be identified, and action taken to protect the [scab] employees,” the letter states.

“This is a new game book for us,” Robinson said. “It just continues to demoralize our members. It just blows my mind.”

The mayor’s letter was signed by all but one town council member, who tendered his resignation on February 20 – making them the second councilor to resign within a year.

This isn’t the first time Bender and the township has threatened legal action against critics. In November, Bender sent cease-and-desist letters to 40 community members who criticized the council’s lack of transparency over the budget.

In early 2023, Bender raised the town’s tax levy by 34% without public consultation, something he later admitted was a mistake. Bender justified the levy increase by claiming the town had to stop relying on reserve funds to balance the budget. Bender also noted the mining industry was “making moves” in the area, arguing the increased levy would help the town prepare for an influx of workers. 

70% of the township’s citizens signed a petition calling for an investigation into the town’s finances from Ontario’s Ministry of Municipal Affairs.

“Everybody is frustrated with the way things are (run) here and they all want the same thing: public accountability, financial accountability, and transparency,” one community member told CBC.

Bender did not return PressProgress’ request for comment.

The strikers have a lot of community support thanks to the general frustration with the town’s leadership, Robinson notes.

“They’re upset with how it’s been handled from the management, council, and mayor side,” Robinson said. “They’ve expressed that and oftentimes that’s what will put perk back in our step when we’re out there walking on the picket line again.”

 

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Emily Leedham
Reporter
Emily Leedham is PressProgress’ Prairies Reporter. Her reporting has a special focus on workers and communities, big money and corporate influence, and systemic racism.

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