A Story of Self-Determination
Ontarians woke up on September 7, 1990 to shocker headlines—the NDP had won the provincial election.
One task on the new government’s to-do list—reform the Crown Employees’ Collective Bargaining Act (CECBA) in order to extend bargaining rights to thousands of previously unrepresented employees in the Ontario Public Service (OPS). For decades, CECBA had prohibited policy analysts, economists, communications specialists, and others from joining a union.
This change should have been welcome news, and in many ways, it was. The right to finally join a union! However, as part of the reforms, employees wouldn’t have a say in which union they’d join. They felt they should have a choice—a vote—in their future.
“The early meetings were raucous—[people] were angry,” explains Bob Stambula, who would serve as Vice-President of the union from 1996 to 2013. “I don’t think the Employer ever understood that they would get that reaction.”
Frustrated by the government’s unilateral decision, a grassroots effort took shape. Employees wanted a union to call their own.
Michael Mitchell, AMAPCEO’s counsel, knew the stars would have to align in just the right way for it to work.
Mitchell recounts that when AMAPCEO’s organizers retained him “it was about seven or eight people with no money and no resources. I mean, it was one thing to have good relationships, know a lot of people, everything else. It was another to organize 4,000, 5,000, 6,000 people—we didn’t know how many. Didn’t really know who. Didn’t know where they were, and of course, they’d be spread all across Ontario.”
The group got on phones, stamped envelopes, and fired up fax machines, and what started as a handful of organizers quickly grew. By mid-August, AMAPCEO numbers had swelled to many thousands, representing every ministry, and communities across the province.
On March 29, 1995, AMAPCEO was established as a formal bargaining agent—a proper union—when it signed a voluntary recognition agreement. The union was 4,500 members strong.
Looking back on it, Gary Gannage, AMAPCEO President from 1995 to 2014, knew why.
“We had integrity; we were straight up,” he says of the union’s approach. “We were also professional, because we wanted to be reflective of the people we represented.”
The new union’s desire for self-determination was tested again in 2008. That year, the provincial government led a consultation to once again make changes to CECBA, and it became clear that their plan was to move thousands of AMAPCEO positions over to a different union. It would have cleaved AMAPCEO by more than two-thirds, leaving behind a rump unit of about 2,500 members.
“It was an outrageous plan,” Dave Bulmer says. An activist at the time, he was elected President of AMAPCEO in 2014. “A total affront to the very reason AMAPCEO was founded in the first place.”
Members quickly organized a meeting at a lecture hall near Queen’s Park to strategize. Word travelled fast, and Stambula says they were unprepared for what happened next.
“Spontaneously, people came out of the Macdonald Block to vent their displeasure,” he says. Before long, the 300-person lecture hall was over-capacity and the crowd moved outside to rally.
Ultimately, thousands took part, including then-activist Cynthia Watt, who would be elected AMAPCEO Vice-President in 2015. “As soon as members started to hear what was in play, they were very upset,” she says. “They wanted to take action.”
“It was a level of engagement that the union—or the Employer—hadn’t seen up to that point,” Bulmer remembers. “Their plan backfired, and AMAPCEO emerged stronger as a result.”
This strength proved helpful in defending members’ interests during particularly difficult rounds of negotiations with the OPS Employer in 2012 and 2014.
“People started to realize we could no longer take for granted that the government was going to give us good contracts,” Watt says. “We were going to have to actually demonstrate that we are a union.”
An unprecedented seven-month mobilization campaign resulted in the union’s first-ever strike vote in 2014. AMAPCEO members turned out in record numbers delivering a resounding 94% result.
With that show of solidarity and display of muscle, AMAPCEO beat back the worst of the concessions sought by the OPS Employer.
This feat led AMAPCEO to grow in reputation and in size to become the union of choice for Ontario’s professionals. It has welcomed more than 2,300 members since 2014—and today, represents more than 13,500 members in the OPS and 500 members between seven broader public sector agencies.
On the labour relations front, the union has secured fair contracts for all of its members, and made meaningful improvements on pay equity, benefits, and job security.
Internally, the union has made a concerted effort to modernize. Under Bulmer’s leadership, AMAPCEO adopted a stronger, more democratic governance and organizational structure, and increased its focus on engagement, education, and communications.
Externally, AMAPCEO continues to build and strengthen relationships with like-minded organizations across the province and even around the world.
“We’re a more active, present player in the labour movement than we were even five years ago,” Bulmer says. “We share the common cause of a more just, equitable society.”
And, thirty years on, the union’s spirit of self-determination is stronger than ever, Bulmer reports. That spirit is encouraging more unrepresented employees to consider AMAPCEO.
“More and more, professionals are realizing their collective strength and their ability to shape their own futures at work. There’s a home for them in AMAPCEO.”
Established in 1992, AMAPCEO is the union for Ontario’s professional employees. It represents 14,000 professional and supervisory public servants who work in the Ontario Public Service or one of six organizations in the Broader Public Sector.Learn more at am