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Paramedics' frustration drives rift in outside workers' union ahead of ratification vote

Members of CUPE Local 416 arrive to vote on the latest offer in their negotiations with the City of Toronto on Feb. 13, 2012.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Solidarity within Toronto's second-largest union is faltering just hours before members vote on a new contract, with paramedics accusing CUPE Local 416 of selling out their interests. The schism has driven some EMS workers to argue that the time has come to break away from Local 416.

"We need to get out of this union," paramedic Roberta Scott said. "This union is not being honest with us. People are feeling very sold-out by this executive."

Members of Local 416, which represents more than 6,000 garbage workers, paramedics and other outside workers, are voting on an agreement struck with the city last week after a 24-hour bargaining session that narrowly prevented widespread labour disruptions.

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The deal, according to an information sheet handed out to members, provides a 6-per-cent pay bump over four years (4.5 per cent in wage increases and 1.5 per cent in lump-sum payments) and restricts eligibility for the "jobs-for-life" clause to employees with more than 15 years experience.

That contentious clause currently guarantees new positions for all permanent employees displaced by contracting-out or mechanization.

The fact sheet also states that paramedics will be granted their own bargaining unit with "full access to interest arbitration," a concession that would put emergency medical service workers on par with police, firefighters and transit workers. That incensed Ms. Scott, a board member with the Ontario Paramedic Association and former spokeswoman for the Toronto Paramedic Association. "This sheet is deliberately misleading," she said. "We are not getting our own bargaining unit and we only have access to arbitration at the whim of [Local 416 president]Mark Ferguson. The city offered us all that, but Mark turned it down. This is not at all what we wanted."

A memorandum of agreement issued by the city does grant paramedics an independent bargaining unit. The union later reworked the clause for legal reasons, according to lawyer Howard Goldblatt, who represented CUPE in negotiations.

"The employer cannot unilaterally change a bargaining-unit description," he said, adding that the information sheet was corrected Monday morning.

Mr. Goldblatt also said that both the CUPE constitution and local by-laws prevent a new bargaining unit from calving off with ease. "In terms of bargaining there are a number of hurdles that have to be overcome," he said. "It's a whole different thing if the province legislates it as they did with the TTC."

He added that arbitration rules for police and EMS would be virtually identical under the new agreement. The Local 416 bargaining committee, upon which EMS representatives sit, would have full autonomy to refer outstanding paramedic issues to arbitration during negotiations.

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"It's innovative, it's unique, there's no model out there like it," he said. "If what [Ms. Scott]wants is not to be represented by 416, that's one thing. But if what she wants is a separate bargaining unit to have separate negotiations in arbitration about terms and conditions, she's got that."

Despite that, Ms. Scott firmly believes that Mr. Ferguson, himself a former paramedic, has driven a wedge between Local 416 and EMS workers.

"We don't trust anything he does for us any more," she said.

Workers will have until 9 p.m. Monday night to ratify the deal. The union will release results some time after 10 p.m.

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