The OPSEU Strike: Workers, Screws, Inmates And Class Struggle

The OPSEU Strike: Workers, Screws, Inmates And Class Struggle
By George 'Mick' Sweetman (Punching Out, NEFAC Toronto)

OPSEU is made up of a wide-range over 100,000 government employees ranging from college teachers & support staff, healthcare workers in hospitals, prison guards and psych screws, to general office workers and bureaucrats.

The legal strike affects correctional facilities, provincial psychiatric hospitals, highway transport enforcement, provincial laboratories, probation and parole services, parks and tourist attractions such as the Ontario Science Centre and Ontario Place, and hundreds of government offices across Ontario.

According to OPSEU, This strike is fundamentally about three things:

1. Renewal of the public service - the union has proposed several changes to the collective agreement, including an end to contracting out, a way to look at contracting in and protection for employees who blow the whistle on government waste and wrongdoing. The employer has rejected every one of these proposals.

2. Respect for employees who do the work - the union has proposed wage and benefit improvements that allow employees to keep pace with inflation. It has also proposed making it easier for the tens of thousands of casual (unclassified) employees, who occupy what should be permanent positions, to get permanent jobs. And it has proposed a continuation of early retirement provisions. The employer has rejected these proposals.

3. Rejection of employer take-aways - the employer has proposed almost $13 million in cuts to benefits (based on their costing) in return for 'improvements' worth less than $3 million. The employer has proposed to create 'term classified' positions that would block current employees access to promotions and permanent jobs. The employer has proposed to take away their employees' ability to use their own pension surplus money as they wish. The employer has proposed to make it much more difficult for casual (unclassified) employees to get converted. The employer has proposed to make it much more difficult for employees to get jobs through postings.

Ontario Prisoners: caught in the middle of a dirty fight.

One of the most controversial aspects of the strike has been centered around Ontario jails where prison guards are organized into OPSEU locals.

Starting March 13th prison guards set up picket lines outside of provincial jails. While OPSEU and the government had agreed to maintain essential services during the prisons were soon deemed understaffed with prison management claiming that guards had called in sick and guards claiming that they had been locked out. As of March 16th 4 jails, including the metro east detention centre have partial essential services and 16, including metro west, have no essential services at all.

There have been a number of reported disturbances at provincial jails as already bad and over-crowded conditions deteriorated quickly as prisoners found themselves being used as pawns by the government, prison management and the guards. Many Ontario prisoners, estimated in the thousands, of have been locked down in their cells since the strike began. There are also reports that prisoners have not been receiving their required medication.

People serving their sentences on weekends at the Mimico Correctional Centre were signed in, signed out and told to go home and serve their time under house arrest. Roger Hogue, a screw picket captain, tried to scare the public into supporting the guards by playing up the alleged 'violence' of the weekenders saying, "Most of these people are violent offenders and now we're saying go home and do what you want."

However, the two people interviewed by a local news station were in for breach of probation and drunk driving. This is more typical of the types of offenses that judges give 'weekend' sentences for. If weekenders are deemed safe enough to be out and a part of society five days a week, there's really no reason for them to be sentenced to jail time at all, all it does is add to the already chronic over-crowding in Ontario Jails. A better short-term solution would be for judges to give people deemed eligible for 'weekend' sentences community service hours instead. A good long-term solution would be for society to figure out more productive and rehabilitative ways to deal with anti-social crime than locking people in cages.

On the night of Sunday March 18th, forty-four inmates at the Ottawa Carleton Regional Detention Centre staged a riot in protest of the horrendous conditions they were experiencing such as late meals, poor sanitary conditions, no clean clothes, no toiletries and no yard time. Even a picketing screw commented, "It's not even about what they want, it's about what they require."

Too bad the screws' fake sympathy ended when a small group of screws were called inside to quell the protest. As they crossed the picket lines, the handful of men promised colleagues they would not take money for the assignment, instead donating it to the strike fund. "Go get 'em," fellow screws encouraged as the white vans carrying emergency response teams of corrections officers drove past.

Fortunately, the situation was resolved with provincial negotiators and there were no injuries reported. If prison management can't meet prisoners' basic needs then prisoners should be released. Anything less is cruel and unusual punishment. At the absolute least, there should be a total amnesty for all prisoners who are charged in relation to any protests (including 'riots' and 'disturbances') about the living conditions they are enduring while OPSEU is on strike.

Regular police were also called into escort prisoners after a disturbance at the Maplehurst Correctional Center in Toronto and there was a reported fire at a jail in Sarnia, Ontario.

Locked out of lock up?

To throw another twist into this sick story, OPSEU alleges that management at some prisons had locked out the prison guards after they were ordered back to work by the labour relations board on March 16th. True to the anti-prisoner line they preach, guards demanded that all prisoners and cells be searched before they returned to 'work'. OPSEU president, Leah Casselman who spent 20 years as a screw herself before being elected to president in 1995, was charged with for contempt of court after a prisoner transfer was delayed by the strike. The charges were stayed.

Are screws workers?

Of course, the overriding question that has to be asked is "Why the hell are screws allowed in OPSEU to begin with?"

OPSEU, like all unions, should be workers organizations and part of the workers movement. This requires a basic class awareness about who workers and the working class are. In short, you have to know what side of the fence you're on.

People employed in jobs where they are expected to maintain the status quo and social peace for the state and bosses, like police officers, prison and psych guards, and private security should have no place in the workers movement and should not be allowed to be part of any genuine union.

Rank and file OPSEU workers should take their union back by pushing for locals made up of prison and psych guards be de-certified as well as amending the constitution of OPSEU so no prison guards, psych screws, cops, security guards or other class enemies can be members.

Solidarity with prisoners, not screws!

If there's anyone in the prisons that we should be in solidarity with during the OPSEU strike it's the prisoners. Inmates, not the guards, not the management, and certainly not the government need our support. As citizens, unionists, and activists we need to be putting forward these demands:

1.The immediate meeting of all prisoners' basic needs such as medication, meals, clean sheets & clothes and yard time.

2.The release of the general population from lockdown.

3.An end to using prisoners as bargaining chips in the strike by all sides.

4.A complete amnesty for all prisoners charged in relation to protests, 'disturbances' and/or 'riots' that take place during the strike.

Critical support for OPSEU

Which side am I on? While I do have some criticisms of OPSEU, especially around their membership including prison guards, I also feel it is important to not write off the tens of thousands of OPSEU workers on strike because of the sad fact that prison guards are also in the union. When it comes down to it I support OPSEU in their fight against the government. For even though OPSEU members are fighting for their own pay, benefits, and working conditions OPSEU winning the strike outright would be a victory for working people in Ontario as a whole and could be an important step in ending the placidity of the Ontario labour movement. However, that support isn't uncritical and it's important that we don't hide our, sometimes serious, disagreements but rather put them out in the open for full debate and discussion.

Perhaps now is a good time to reflect on how we can help OPSEU win this strike, which is currently the largest single example of class struggle in the province, and advance the workers movement as a whole.

Picket line support: To me it seems like picket line support work could be an important way to help maintain the morale of OPSEU workers as well as an opportunity to engage them in discussion about the strike, their union, and the broader class struggle. While I'm sure that simply showing up and walking the line will earn you a bit of respect and some thanks from striking workers OPSEU isn't holding 'hard' picket lines and really don't 'need' any extra muscle to win the strike as the government isn't using replacement workers opting instead to close offices and deny services in a bid to undermine public support for the union. Probably the best thing you could do when going out to the line would be to bring some warm coffee, or soup, and let them know that they're not alone in the fight. Obviously, I recommend staying off the picket lines at prisons and psychiatric hospitals in solidarity with the inmates of those institutions.

Public support: This seems like the most important area to win in the strike. As OPSEU is made up of public employees in government offices that most people rarely use, and the government is more than willing to take huge financial losses (of taxpayers money) in order to break the strike, the real deciding factor will be which side has the most public support. Unlike most strikes, where a hard picket line and determination on behalf of the membership is the most important issue, this strike needs to have public support if it is to be successful. Things like writing in to newspapers, calling your MPP, distributing information on the strike and just talking to your neighbors and co-workers about all help in an important way.

Expanding the debate: One thing that is of vital long-term importance is trying to expand the debate around the OPSEU strike in a way that not only helps OPSEU win but also advances class struggle for all workers and poor people. The way we need to do this is by talking to OPSEU workers about how their strike is just part of the broader class struggle and that they need to identify with and exercise solidarity with all workers and poor people struggles in the province. The debate should also be expanded from a simple dispute between the union and the government to one of ALL workers, poor people and prisoners against the root causes of the strike, class society and the state.