Report to OPSEU members on cuts in the MNR
prepared by Dave Fluri, OPSEU
mobiliser for MNR, MoE and Northern Issues
The Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR)
has undertaken the latest in a series of organizational changes
that the Ontario government is calling “transformation”. In
reality, they are service cuts. The ministry’s cuts for
2012-2015 follow downsizing mandated by the 2010 and 2011
The Historical Context
MNR is a ministry that is greatly
dependent upon contract (fixed term) staff. Fixed term
employees have long been used for clearly seasonal tasks such as
forest fire fighting and Ontario Parks summer staff. In
addition, though, the ministry also uses contract staff to cover
short-term vacancies and project-type staffing needs.
In the mid-1990s, MNR comprised
about 5,000 full-time staff. In the summer, that staffing
complement would often swell to 7,500 or so. Due to cuts under
the Harris government, notably during the 1996-1997 fiscal year,
most field offices saw staff cuts of 40 to 45 per cent. The
vast majority of these cuts were full time equivalents (FTEs)
from the permanent staffing pool.
After the Conservatives were
defeated, shortly after the turn of the century, staffing
reductions continued but there was increased staffing at the
regional and head office levels.
To illustrate this, I put out a
press release in 2008, as part of the “Save the MNR” campaign,
that detailed a total of a 70 per cent staffing reduction (since
1996) in local (district) MNR offices. In response, when
questioned by the media, the Minister’s Office indicated that,
in total, there had been about a 1 per cent reduction in staff
across the province. The difference, of course, reflects the
increased staffing regionally and provincially as well as a good
deal of “creative accounting”. Management often “fudges the
numbers” by including contract staff among the FTE counts for
certain purposes and not for others.
The result of this shift in staff
from the “field level” to the regional and provincial levels
resulted in large-scale demoralisation of staff.
More Recent Changes
Roughly by the start of this
decade, the MNR staffing complement was about 3,500 FTEs with
some 800 to 1100 seasonal staff, depending largely on the
severity of the fire season.
In the 2009 budget, Finance
Minister Dwight Duncan announced the reduction of the public
service by five per cent, or 3,400 jobs, over the next three
years. This apparently worked out to a cut of 188 positions at
MNR. The Ministry eliminated vacancies rather than lay off
employees. However, this permanent cut to staffing created huge
workload issues for the remaining employees. These staff cuts
were required to be completed by March 31, 2012 and it appears
they have been. OPSEU’s records show that there were fewer than
a half dozen surplus notices issued in MNR for the fiscal year
ending March 31, 2012.
In the 2011 Ontario Budget, the
Finance Minister, Dwight Duncan, announced a further reduction
of 1500 FTEs across the public service. We’ve never received an
adequate explanation of what MNR’s share of this reduction might
be but, based on general mathematical principles, it would,
presumably, work out to somewhere around 80 or 90 positions. At
the Ministry Enforcement and Renewal Committee (MERC) table, we
were assured that this level of reduction would still be
possible without surplus notices. The annual turnover in staff,
through resignations and retirements, was averaging, at that
point, 95 to 120 staff per year. Management assured us that
this latest reduction would be accomplished without layoffs and,
to their credit, they seem to have, largely, made this happen.
According to the government’s agenda, these reductions were to
be completed by March 31, 2013. To complete this task, the last
group of surplus notices were sent out at the end of September
2012, just past. Those notices totalled about 120 seasonal
positions, largely in parks and the Ontario Ranger program, and
about two dozen permanent staff. The Ontario Ranger program was
completely eliminated. Prior notice had been given, in the
spring, of about 22 positions eliminated from the Bear-Wise
program, that were entirely seasonal in nature. About 11 of
those Bear-Wise positions were actually occupied.
It should be noted that the
recently-announced reduction of some 150 seasonal and permanent
staff is a mixture of the 1,500 OPS positions announced in 2011
and the beginnings of the 2012-2015 Transformation initiative
As it stands, today, the MNR
complement is approximately 2,900 to 3,000 FTEs.
Intentions of Further Reductions
In the 2012 Ontario Budget, further
reductions to the MNR budget were announced. This latest round
has been come to be called Transformation although, to be fair,
that word has been bandied about for some years, now.
What do we know about the
government’s plans, at this point?
The situation is rather murky.
What we have been told is that the MNR budget, currently under
0.5 per cent of the provincial budget, will be reduced by at
least $50 million plus 3 to 5 per cent per year for each of the
next three years, a total of another $20 million. The $50
million portion of that reduction reflects MNR’s deemed
“overspending” over the last several years. A good deal of that
“overspending” has been caused by above-average years of
forest-fire suppression needs, an area that is notoriously
difficult to predict and that is, at least partly, influenced by
climate change. As a result, other programs are now required to
take a hit because of chronic underfunding of fire suppression.
Nonetheless, what has been
announced by the Deputy Minister is that the reductions will be
fully implemented by March 31, 2015. When questioned on the
potential role of attrition in covering these reductions, the
Deputy replied that the anticipated attrition by 2015 would be
550 employees but that that “would not be enough”. Management
has assured us that that does not mean that the reduction will
be 550 or more staff, but that “organisational realities” mean
that hiring will continue even though staff will be surplussed.
It’s a little like reading tea leaves but it appears certain
that there will be hundreds more FTEs eliminated by the end of
the 2015 fiscal year.
The model for the new organisation,
apparently, is for fewer field (district) offices, with more
services being delivered at the regional and provincial levels.
We were told that the ministry could not be sure how all this
would shake out and that employees were encouraged to apply for
positions at the regional and provincial offices. The employer
says that “staffing up” will largely be completed at the
regional and provincial levels before real downsizing begins at
the field level.
In summary, again, the reduction of
about 150 staff that was announced in September, 2012 is a
composite of the 80 to 90 staff from the 2011 budget
announcement and the further $70 million that is anticipated
under the Transformation initiative. These staffing numbers
apply strictly to this fiscal year. There are likely hundreds
more staff reductions to come before March 2015.
What all of this amounts to is that
there is a good deal of angst among staff, mainly at the
district (field) level. Our members have already been
challenged by significant workload increases. It’s exceedingly
unclear how the MNR organisational structure might shake out
over the next few years. The story from management is,
basically, that we should “stay calm” and “full speed ahead”.
What does this mean for us,
in terms of mobilising for a new collective agreement?
What we need to do, I think, is to
remember that we are stronger together than we are separately.
Our bargaining teams are aware of the importance of solid job
security language and only through strong job security language
will we be able to ensure that our members are effectively
protected from undue hardship and are aided in transitioning to
other circumstances, should the need so arise. The teams have
assured us that improvements to the language in Article 20,
among others, will be a major focus of OPSEU’s position.
In addition, a subcommittee of your
MERC has been meeting with the employer in an effort to
negotiate ways to mitigate the impact of staffing cuts already
announced or planned for the next couple of years. Although
those discussions are delicate and, consequently, are
confidential at this stage, every effort is being made to ensure
that staff are affected as little as possible. One of the
results that the committee has already negotiated is the
recently-announced improvements to the voluntary exit option (VEO)
provisions offered by the employer. The OPSEU members of the
sub-committee remain committed to working with the bargaining
team to secure the best possible deal for MNR staff and staff
across the OPS.
What we need to do, as workers, is
to signal our support for the bargaining teams. The employer is
monitoring and is required to report on union activity in the
workplace. We can enhance our chances of negotiating a good
collective agreement by taking action.
OPSEU has available for sale
lanyards and desk flags. We should all consider wearing an
OPSEU lanyard at work, each day, and placing a flag on our
desk. If you talk to your chief steward or local president,
these items can be ordered from the OPSEU website. In addition,
consider organising a gathering at coffee break or a barbecue at
lunch time. Engage you fellow members in discussions of the
Print off copies of the employer’s
opening offer and provide copies to co-workers. Ensure that
copies are posted on the union bulletin boards.
Invite an OPSEU mobiliser to come talk to members at coffee break or to attend
your next local meeting.
If you should require further
information or if you wish to have a secure (non-government)
email address added to our distribution list, feel free to
contact me or any of your MERC team members.
OPSEU mobiliser for MNR, MoE and Northern issues.
Download this document
MNR: Northern Ontario