With no deal in sight, no bargaining dates set and huge divides at the negotiating table, Ontario’s nearly 6,000 jail guards and parole officers could walk out in less than two weeks.
If the corrections branch of the Ontario Public Service Employees’ Union (OPSEU) does strike January 10, it would mark the first major labour disruption in the province’s corrections systems in over a decade. On Dec. 24, the union was granted a “no board report” — the procedure that puts its members members in a legal strike position as of January 10, 2016.
“We’ve certainly come to eleventh-hour deals before, but I would say we’re a fair distance apart this time,” OPSEU bargaining team chair Tom O’Neill said Tuesday. While the government has issued a statement saying it remains hopeful a deal can be struck, it’s poured millions into preparations for a strike. “They’re also trucking in supplies to facilities,” O’Neill said.
So both sides are readying for a strike, with OPSEU telling members to fill out forms that will enable them to receive strike pay and the government readying managers from across the public sector to go in to run its jails.
Here’s what you need to know about how a strike will affect jails, inmates, public safety and government coffers — and how the walkout could still be prevented.
How likely is a strike?
It’s always hard to gauge the likelihood of a strike — remember the threat in May 2013 that OPSEU workers in government-run liquor stores would strike ahead of the long weekend? Many in Ontario had already stocked up at the LCBO when the late-night news broke a deal had been struck, quite literally at the eleventh hour. But as O’Neill noted, this isn’t simple positioning.
Sixty-seven per cent of OPSEU corrections members voted to reject a tentative contract in November, which is relatively uncommon in the public service — especially when the general membership accepted the same deal. Treasury Board President Deb Matthews and Minister of Correctional Services Yasir Naqvi said in a joint statement Tuesday they hope bargaining soon resumes and a deal can be reached. But a government spokesperson said Wednesday that talks have yet to resume:
“The government and OPSEU have agreed to make another attempt to reach a negotiated agreement before January 10th. The exact dates to resume bargaining have not yet been finalized.”
Now, even a week can be a long time at the negotiating table, but the sense is there’s a lot of daylight between what the union wants and what the government is willing to give.
So what happens January 10?
The second the clock strikes midnight, corrections offices, parole and probation officers are in a legal strike position. That does not, however, mean they will walkout that minute.
It’s possible they could, and OPSEU is preparing for that eventuality. But if talks resume and are going well, it’s possible the union may hold off for a day or so before walking out. If those negotiations are stagnant, or have yet to resume, expect the strike to begin with the clock’s turn.
Who and what will be affected?
The last time OPSEU staged a province-wide strike, Ernie Eves was premier and most of its over 30,000 members walked out, shuttering facilities that issue driver’s licenses, birth certificates, and other key services. This time around, only provincially run jails, correctional facilities like remand centres, youth centres and probation and parole offices will be affected.
But that’s still a wide swath of society. While managers, both from within corrections and without, will keep things running, the effects will be felt both in and out of jails.
What could a strike mean for inmates?
If corrections officers strike and management takes over, inmates could end up in perpetual lockdown. That means they could be confined to cells, single or shared, for entire days at a time, only emerging for absolutely necessary activities. Time for rehabilitative programs, to exercise, to go outside and even to bathe could be reduced or cut entirely.
Visitation hours will also likely be cut off completely, said Kim Pate, national director for the Elizabeth Fry Society and a professor at the University of Ottawa faculty of law. That leaves family and children of inmates cut off. The Elizabeth Fry society advocates for women in the justice system and Pate said many people forget that women are often sole primary care givers before being incarcerated, so further cutting them off from their children could produce real harm.
It could also put some inmates in danger, both Tate and O’Neill said, as more violent offenders take advantage of less seasoned guards.
“I’m sure some of them are worried about their safety as they should be,” O’Neill said. He added that any cuts to programming inmates are used to, whether it’s visitation hours or exercise, exacerbates tensions and creates a potentially explosive situation.
A government spokesperson said that while managers from across the public service could be involved, “most direct contact with inmates will be handled and overseen by experienced corrections managers. This approach is consistent with how we operated the institutions in the 2002 OPSEU strike.”
Some OPEU workers, such as nurses and social workers, could still be working in prisons if they are under the general contract.
What could this mean for public safety?
Much of the coverage of the looming labour strike has focused on jails, but community-based interventions will also be affected. If parole and probation officers are on strike, management will have to carry heavy caseloads. As O’Neill pointed out, Ontario parole and probation workers already handle the highest number of clients of any in the country. If fewer people are doing that same work, it’s easy to see how appointments could be cut short or cancelled, and how something could fall through the cracks.
“There will be sex offenders on the loose, unsupervised, absolutely 100 per cent guaranteed,” Scott McIntyre, the probation and parole health and safety chair for OPSEU told the London Free Press. He and O’Neill also said there were violent crimes, even murders, during the 2002 strike as a result of the decreased oversight, but a search through newspaper archives didn’t turn up any stories of that nature.
What will this cost?
The government has already poured $8.5 million into training and infrastructure necessary to handle a strike. O’Neill said that means things like mattresses for managers to sleep on and televisions for break rooms as many of them will work 24/7 in the event of a strike. While OPSEU workers won’t get paid if the walk out, managers tend to make much more, so the government likely won’t save anything that way.
According to a government spokesperson, the millions spent to ready the prisons won’t be for naught: “these infrastructure improvements were designed to be repurposed following any labour disruption for such uses as new programming space for inmates.”
Why is this happening?
The showdown escalated when the corrections branch rejected earlier this fall a tentative contract accepted by tens of thousands of other OPSEU workers, but the origins of the conflict, and the union-dubbed “crisis in corrections,” are much deeper.
Ontario prisons have been notoriously overcrowded for years, new facilities have been troubled with glitches like broken prison doors and a hiring freeze has further exhausted the existing staff. And, after accepting a wage freeze in 2012, OPSEU was asked to accept another freeze this year, a 1.4 per cent lump sum payment next year and 1.4 per cent raise the year after. That means an employee making $40,000 a year would only see their actual salary increase by $560 in five years.
That falls against a backdrop of management receiving five to eight per cent increases, O’Neill said. There are other key issues: corrections wants to be permanently spun off from the main union contract going forward.
Unlike paramedics, nurses, police and firefighters, corrections workers aren’t considered essential services under the law, meaning they retain the legal right to strike. That said, if a strike drags, the government can always considered back-to-work legislation or binding arbitration — the latter of which OPSEU actually favours as those settlements often favour unions due to pattern bargaining.
Is there a silver lining?
OPSEU, inmate advocates, the provincial ombudsman and other stakeholders have warned for years of a growing crisis in Ontario’s corrections system. Years of wage and hiring freezes have left a shrunken, demoralized staff working overtime without the ability to take much-needed vacations, O’Neill said.
Pate said that if a strike happens, she hopes it becomes a chance to take a step back and consider wholesale reform. More community-based interventions, implementation of Truth and Reconciliation report recommendations for incarceration and addressing chronic overcrowding are just a few things that could be tackled, Pate said.