TORONTO — Ontario’s deputy premier fired a warning shot Friday to the union representing public service employees ahead of a looming strike that could see up to 6,000 jail guards and probation officers walk off the job.
In the event of a strike at 12:01 a.m. Sunday, managers from across the public service will be brought in to run the jails.
Smokey Thomas, president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, has said he’s concerned that the managers won’t be able to ensure the safety of the other staff covered under a different contract.
Nurses, maintenance crews and kitchen staff will be expected to report for work, but Thomas has said he has advised them not to go in if they feel unsafe.
Deputy Premier Deb Matthews, responding to a letter Thomas sent her Wednesday, said the government is committed to the well-being of its employees, but warned against the staff not showing up for work.
“We cannot permit unauthorized absences or illegal activities that prevent staff from attending the workplace and we will take the steps necessary to address such misconduct,” she wrote.
OPSEU and the government were meeting Friday with a mediator in the hopes of reaching a contract deal hours before the workers are set to go on strike.
Tom O’Neill, the head of the corrections bargaining team for the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, said they’ll keep talking past Friday if progress is made at the table, but for now they’re planning to walk out.
A strike would have impacts outside the walls of the province’s jails and detention centres.
Lawyers and judges have complained recently about delays in transporting inmates awaiting trial to court.
The lawyer for Rohinie Bisesar, who is charged with second-degree murder in the stabbing of a woman in Toronto’s underground PATH retail network, suggested Friday the guards are working to rule ahead of the strike and it is making it difficult for him to see and talk with his client.
Dellen Millard, whose first-degree murder trial is set to begin later this month, was two-and-a-half hours late for a court appearance this week. Judge Diane Oleskiw called the situation at the Toronto South Detention Centre, where Millard is being held, “intolerable.”
The judge and Millard’s lawyer, Peter Boushy, chalked the delay up to the current labour dispute.
The government refused to comment on such delays, saying there was a media blackout on negotiations.
The union has also warned that managers will not be able to handle probation officers’ caseloads.
“It’s going to be a very bad situation if we do go out, not only in the jails but in the communities as well, because there will be no supervision for the offenders who are out in the communities on probation,” said O’Neill.
The corrections workers rejected an earlier tentative settlement, which would have given the workers no raise in the first year of a contract, a lump sum in the second year and a 1.4-per-cent raise in the third year.
O’Neill said compensation is an issue, especially after the government spent $58 million last year to top up managers’ salaries, which had been frozen for years, while saying there is no new money for wage increases.
Union bosses say the membership wants to be declared an essential service, so their pay would rise with police and firefighters in binding arbitration, but they would also lose the right to strike.