Impromptu Demonstrations Likely to Continue in Labour Dispute

After surprising council with a picket line last weekend, CSU 52 says pop-up protests are likely to continue

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It was supposed to be a routine outing for Mayor Amarjeet Sohi and his fellow councillors: a Sunday morning spent highlighting the city’s winter activities and celebrating the expansion of the Valley Line LRT. An easy political win, by anyone’s estimation.

Instead, as media gathered on Feb. 16 at the Edmonton Ski Club ahead of a scheduled press conference, Sohi and his colleagues were photo-bombed by some two dozen protesters brandishing placards and clad in red.

It’s the latest tactic deployed by Civic Service Union 52 (CSU 52), the union representing more than 5,000 City of Edmonton and Edmonton Public Library employees, in an ongoing labour dispute with the City.

The dispute — which escalated this past week when the City applied for lockout polling and the union voted overwhelmingly in favour of a strike mandate — has centred on wage increases for CSU 52 membership, who have been without a collective agreement with the City since 2018.

Last month, negotiations between the City and the union broke down after the union rejected the City’s offer of zero, one and two per cent over three years and the City walked away from the negotiating table.

When asked whether CSU 52 intends to continue party-crashing future municipal events, vice president Tracy Foran had this to say:

“Absolutely.”

Foran said the decision to upend events like Sunday’s is intentional — and aimed at increasing the publicity of both the dispute and the union’s message.

“We thought it was an opportunity to catch [the City] in the public spotlight and remind them we’re still here and we don’t have a contract,” Foran said. “We knew it would be a busy site and it would garner more public attention so that people understand why we’re out here.”

As effective as it might be to interrupt Sohi’s Family Day PR conference, there is a degree of public shaming built into the tactic of catching city council off guard, and that’s not lost on Foran.

“… City council took a 2.41 per cent [wage] increase in January, so maybe some of [the demonstration] was shaming because they felt it was appropriate to take an increase when we’re still fighting for wages for 2021, 2022, and 2023,” she said.

Sunday’s protest came roughly a week after 100 members of CSU 52 demonstrated in front of City Hall, calling on the City to deliver a higher wage increase for members or face a strike.

With two CSU 52 protests occurring in one week, I reached out to the City to ask if they were planning on taking any measures to prevent further surprise picketing from happening at events. In a statement, the City said:

“We respect our employees’ ability to exercise their freedom of expression rights, provided they do so outside of their regular working hours.”

While the City’s statement is pretty boilerplate, Mayor Sohi’s comments were even more so. In an interview with CTV on Sunday, he stated that council is not involved in the bargaining process.

Sohi’s comment begs the obvious question: if council’s not at the bargaining table, why target them specifically with demonstrations? Well, Foran said, because council is involved, whether the mayor chooses to acknowledge it or not.

“Council is a part of bargaining because at the end of the day, they set the budget and they set the mandate, and they ratify the agreement on the employer’s side,” Foran said. “There is nothing in the Municipal Act that says they cannot participate in bargaining, so I think they’re being fed some incorrect information from City Manager (Andre) Corbould.”