HAMILTON, Ont. (Canadian OH&S News)
Guards at the Barton Street jail in Hamilton are digging in their heels after a clash with management over safety gear has turned into a full-fledged labour lockout.
The dispute began on Aug. 13, after guards at the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre (HWDC) wanted to don safety vests to search for a piece of metal which had gone missing. The guards feared the inmates may fashion the electrical socket plate cover into a weapon, creating a potential risk to their safety.
But management at HWDC refused, arguing the vests could intimidate the inmates.
The Ministry of Labour also investigated, and concluded that there was no threat to the correctional workers’ safety.
Management eventually agreed to allow the workers to search the fourth floor of the jail while wearing vests, said minister for correctional services Madeleine Meilleur in a statement, adding that “[the labour ministry] also noted that a provision of the Ontario Health and Safety Act allowing workers certain conditions to refuse to perform their duties did not apply in this case.”
Meetings between the local union Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), HWDC management, and Minister Meilleur late last month had reached an impasse. As a result, the guards have been off the job since mid-August.
Now, both parties have moved on from the vest question, but remain at odds — this time over whether disciplinary action should be taken against the guards.
“Members are not getting paid, and they have the threat of discipline hanging over their heads,” said Dan Sidsworth, chair of OPSEU’s corrections division. “We can’t negotiate with a gun to our head. If there’s going to be reprisals for bringing forward health and safety concerns, then it needs to be addressed. Basically, we’re being locked out and that’s our official position.”
According to OPSEU, the ministry is pursuing a “no work, no pay” penalty for the prison guards. Sidsworth maintains that the issue is a health and safety concern, not a labour dispute — a point of contention which could upturn the negotiating table.
“We’ve been dealing with this as a health and safety concern from the beginning — so the local executive, everybody gets to have an opinion. Because it’s a health and safety concern, if management doesn’t look off of their position, I don’t see an end in sight,” he said.
The vests, which are ballistic- and stab-resistant, come with specific restrictions, and guards are only allowed to wear them when doing community escorts or searches for sharp-edged weapons. In this particular case, Sidsworth said the metal plate posed a risk.
“Statistics have shown that the level of violence has really spiked, it’s increased over the past two years. There have been over 3,000 assaults, in 2010 and 2011, in the province,” he explained, adding that the number of assaults on staff for that time amounted to 1,003, with inmate-on-inmate violence making up the difference.
Andrea Horwath, leader of the Ontario NDPs and an MPP for Hamilton, raised the issue at Queen’s Park on Aug. 27, after about 100 people rallied on the lawn in support of the prison workers.
“The corrections workers at the Barton Street jail are highly trained professionals whose personal safety concerns matter, and they should not be ignored,” Horwath said, adding that workers have a right to refuse unsafe work without fear of discipline from their employer — even if their employer is the government of Ontario.
In the meantime, the ministry has plans to file an illegal strike application with the provincial labour relations board, while managers fill in for day-to-day duties at the jail.