Over the last few years CAMH employees have witnessed a shift in working conditions. This has
included the consolidation of services, an aggressive discouraging of the use of sick days, and freezing
salaries for two of the last six years (despite generous increases in pay at executive lever). While it may
seem drastic, it’s only one example of a much larger trend towards austerity.
Public service workers in Canada are no strangers to austerity policies which prioritize
under-spending, service reduction and bloodletting benefit programs. All of this is done in the name of ‘deficit
reduction’. Take, for example, the Conservative federal government shedding over 10, 000 public sector
jobs over the past several years, only to then target public servants’ pensions.
Unions are starting to fight back. At the provincial level, OPSEU has signed a solidarity pact with
professional associations (ALOC, AMAPCEO and PEGO) to, “send a message to the government that OPS
employees will not be a scapegoat for the government’s financial situation; a crisis that we did not create.”
Solidarity between the organizations will present a stronger front in resisting concessions in bargaining.
There is organizing at the local level, as well. In Toronto, a group of OPSEU members employed at
various legal aid clinics are helping to lead the fight against austerity. Legal Aid Ontario has recently
proposed a series of mergers of offices in the GTA, which can impact services vital to disadvantaged
communities. Voices United talked to one member of OPSEU Local 525 about how they are standing up to
austerity and what lessons can be learned.
Hi, can you start with an overview of the legal clinic system in Toronto? What is its relationship to
Legal Aid Ontario, how many clinics are there, and roughly how many employees (union and non
unionized) are in the system?
Community Legal Clinics provide legal services to lowincome people in areas not traditionally covered by
Legal Aid such as Housing, Income Security, Immigration, and Employment. Key tenets of the system are
local community board governance, meaning clinics should be run by boards which reflect the makeup of
the local community they serve, and a commitment to community development, meaning engaging in work
that leads to law reform in the interest of low income peoples’ social and economic rights.
There are 77 Community Legal Clinics in Ontario, 17 in the GTA, all funded by LAO. In the GTA we have 8
clinics unionized with OPSEU.
Now, could you describe the proposed cuts and mergers?
LAO is demanding that the Community Legal Clinics enter into processes to transform the model they are
working on. In the GTA some of Community Legal Clinic Directors have initiated what they call a
“Transformation Project” to develop a plan for what the new system will look like. They are proposing
merging the existing 17 clinics into 4 or 5 larger legal clinics.
How will the mergers impact jobs?
Whenever the government undertakes mergers or “rationalization” schemes in the public sector, jobs are
lost. With the Community Legal Clinic mergers it remains to be seen whether jobs will be lost solely through
attrition, or if there will be buyouts and layoffs as well.
The other danger is that the new system will be more focused on “efficiencies”, in other words getting as
many people through the door and churning out as many cases as possible. The important community
organizing and legal and policy reform work we undertake will be de-emphasized or lost altogether.
How will the mergers impact service for clients?
There will be fewer clinics, so clients will generally have to travel farther to get to a clinic which will be
unaffordable for many clients who are on social assistance. The plan is that clients will be encouraged or
made to make to contact with a Community Legal Clinic by satellite office, telephone, and online, which may
present a barrier to some clients with disabilities.
What is being done to push back against this plan?
Legal clinics workers have been trying to influence things by making our voice heard within the
Transformation Project. We have also met citywide and drafted a statement outlining our concerns.
Unionized legal clinic workers are in discussions about protecting their union recognition in a transformed
What should other OPSEU members know, and how can they help?
Many of the unionized legal clinics are going into collective bargaining in the coming months. We will be
fighting for language in our collective agreements to protect our jobs going into mergers. We may be calling
on OPSEU members to mobilize and help put pressure on our employers if we come up against a wall in