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(en) (sup), Canada, Ontario, The OPSEU strike: workers, screws, inmates and class struggle.

From Mick <mickblack47@yahoo.com>
Date Thu, 21 Mar 2002 02:40:04 -0500 (EST)


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The OPSEU strike: workers, screws, inmates and class struggle.
By Mick Black.

At the stroke of midnight on March 13, 2002, the Ontario Public Service
Employees Union (OPSEU) went on strike with over 45, 000 union members out
on the picket lines. 

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
namely class society and the state.



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