Ontario’s correctional officers say they’re ready to strike in weeks

TORONTO – Ontario’s correctional officers are bracing for a potential strike, and if it ends up being anything like the 51-day labour dispute of 2002, life inside the province’s jails could become exceedingly ugly in a few weeks.

 

The workers provide an essential service and can’t walk off the job entirely, but the last time the Ontario Public Service Employees Union went on strike, staffing levels in the corrections system were minimal and chaos was common.

 

The union claimed that managers who stepped in as replacements weren’t up to the task and blamed them for an inmate’s death, rioting and escapes.

 

The union also said desperate managers mollified inmates with pizza, pornography and cigarettes in exchange for good behaviour.

 

The government countered that some workers were withholding food for as long as 19 hours at a time and refused to provide insulin and other medication to inmates.

 

Government officials also said officers antagonized inmates, threatened managers and did everything they could to make their jobs even harder, including honking horns to disrupt their sleep and tying up phone lines with prank calls.

 

At one point, former Conservative correctional services minister Rob Sampson mused about firing them and hiring replacement workers.

 

“I understand the objective of a union when it strikes is to be disruptive,” Sampson said at the time.

 

“Unfortunately, I think they’ve gone way, way past the usual shenanigans one might see in a strike environment and have started to jeopardize and threaten … the lives of people running the institution and the inmates.” A spokeswoman for Rick Bartolucci, the current minister of community safety and correctional services, said the government has “contingencies to deal with a number of situations related to work stoppages.”

 

Workers are mobilizing as well, with blogs and a Facebook group, and the rhetoric has turned angry and nasty.

 

While the Conservative government was demonized for stripping services from the correctional system and embracing the idea of privatization, the Liberals haven’t been much better, said Eduardo Almeida, chairman of the union’s corrections committee.

 

“We’ve been hearing for years this is a different government, but it’s like the Who song ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’: ‘Meet the new boss, same as the old boss,”‘ he said.

 

“The government is showing again their lack of respect for corrections as a law enforcement agency.”

 

The union will vote on its latest contract offer at the end of the month, but members are being told they should reject it.

 

The union is furious with proposed cutbacks to sick time, which follow a report from the provincial auditor general that noted correctional officers used an average of 32.5 sick days in 2007, up 63 per cent from 2001.

 

Almeida admitted there is likely some abuse of sick time, but he said in most cases the numbers aren’t being inflated and reflect the stressful, dangerous nature of the job.

 

“We’re constantly breaking up fights, there’s blood and biohazard around everywhere,” he said.

“They’re figuring they’re not going to have to pay my members to be sick, but my members are still going to be sick, my members are still going to be off and that’s not going to stop.”

A spokesman for Government Services Minister Ted McMeekin said paying for sick days in 2007 cost $20 million in overtime, and the government needs to save some of that money given the state of the economy.

“We believe the request to lower absenteeism and the associated costs is fair and reasonable for both the corrections officers and the people of Ontario,” said spokesman Greg Dennis.

It seems inevitable that a strike will happen unless something drastic happens soon – and a strike won’t be pretty, Almeida said.

“Under any normal conditions, jails are horrible, let alone when you start to go into essential service,” he said.

“Jails are already notoriously understaffed, and to go and suddenly have somebody working a unit by themselves and having management try and assist or help out will be horrible.”

The John Howard Society of Ontario says inmates are the forgotten victims during a strike, and the terrible living conditions they already deal with will certainly worsen.

“We know prisons are places where there’s already tensions, there are issues already occurring, and a strike only makes it worse,” said executive director Paula Osmok.

“Essentially the prisoners were in lockdown for most of the time of the strike (in 2002). Access to the yard didn’t really happen, and visits with family members and lawyers were affected.”

She said the public may not have much sympathy for inmates, but they should.

“It may not seem like a big deal to have standards drop or rights violated for that particular population but … I think it’s a slippery slope once we start to condone those sorts of things.”

source: http://ca.news.yahoo.com/s/capress/090110/national/ont_correctionsstrike

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