Normally, the sight of a construction crane swinging its boom over the razor-wire fence of a provincial jail would raise alarms among correctional workers. This week across Ontario, however, the sudden appearance of construction crews outside jails has prompted weary acceptance that a looming strike could be long and, according to the correctional union, dangerous for the managers forced to operate the institutions.
"I really do fear this is a tragedy waiting to happen," said Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) president Smokey Thomas.
By Thursday, there was ample evidence that the province was preparing for protracted labour action.
A snaking line of trucks carrying furniture and other provisions waited for a spot at the Lindsay jail's crowded loading dock. At Ontario Correctional Institute in Brampton, shipments of beds and chocolate bars poured in. Over at Toronto East Detention Centre in Scarborough, a mammoth crane lifted portable trailers over the institution's razor-wire fences in advance of a 12:01 a.m. Sunday strike deadline.
It's all part of the province's plan to call in managers from throughout Ontario's public service, offer them a quick training program in jail operations and house them in makeshift living quarters behind the gates.
"My members have seen millions spent on housing, food, portables, big-screen TVs for the managers and scabs who will run these places," Mr. Thomas said. "That money would be better spent reaching an agreement."
Both sides will be negotiating with the help of a mediator on Friday and Saturday. Workers voted 67 per cent in early December to reject a tentative agreement that had been recommended by the union. Should full labour action commence next week at the 28 corrections facilities run by the government, selected union staff – crisis response teams, crisis negotiators, inmate escort services and canine handlers – would be forced to cross their own picket lines, according to provincial spokeswoman Annie Donolo.
OPSEU's 6,000 correctional workers have seen their wages fall far behind those of police and other emergency workers in recent years. The debt-laden province, meanwhile, says its coffers are empty.
The lengthy negotiations have not only strained relations between workers and Queen's Park, but also between workers and their own union.
The key demand by workers is an essential-service designation that would remove their right to strike and place their collective bargaining power in the hands of binding arbitration. Right now, correctional workers operate under a strange hybrid arrangement that gives them the right to strike, while also requiring them to maintain skeleton staffing levels during work stoppages.
"OPSEU has neglected us," said Barry Roy, a correctional worker at Ontario Correctional Institute and member of a group that has hired a labour lawyer to press both OPSEU and the province to mandate essential-service status. "OPSEU is part and parcel of the reasons why we have not had wage increases. They have used us as their militant faction."
Essential-service status has helped drive up police wages to the point where a first-class constable in Toronto will earn at least $96,757 this year. By contrast, Ontario correctional workers logging 40 hours a week make a maximum of about $68,000. Many, however, log enough overtime to land on the Sunshine List, the province's annual inventory of public employees earning more than $100,000 a year.
Correctional workers currently bargain severance and benefits issues alongside 125,000 other OPSEU members. Wage and training issues are dealt with by a separate correctional bargaining unit. In a recent OPSEU poll, 98 per cent of correctional workers said they wanted their own bargaining unit to negotiate all issues, something that would require legislative change.
"We want our own separate collective agreement because we've been stonewalled by the central union," said Mark Sabada, a guard at Toronto South Detention Centre. "A lot of people want out of OPSEU because, for us, it's been a non-performer."
A secondary issue is safety. The union is asking for letters of agreement that would prevent overcrowding and the chronic understaffing that has led to frequent lockdowns and tinderbox conditions.
Those two factors apparently fuelled a Dec. 7 riot at Thunder Bay District Jail. By the time the riot was over, the top floor of the nearly 100-year-old jail was in ruins. Unbreakable windows were smashed; cameras and furniture were broken and then set on fire.
Tired of living three men to a cell, 68 inmates took control of the facility and held a corrections officer hostage for more than three hours. The officer was released and taken to a hospital. Twelve hours after the chaos began, the prisoners backed down.
For Thunder Bay Mayor Keith Hobbs, the scene was reminiscent of a 1977 riot when he and his police partner were the first to arrive on the scene.
"I've toured the jail twice in the last year and it's worse that it was in 1977," Mr. Hobbs said. "I wouldn't want to work in those conditions."
With a report from Allan Maki