Health workers take to picket line

Tom Sasvari
The Recorder
SUDBURY—A total of 83 full- and part-time employees, including three on Manitoulin Island, who provide front line mental health services to about 2,000 children in the Sudbury-Manitoulin district went out on strike as of Monday.
The members of Local 666 of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union set up picket lines at several offices of the Sudbury Child and Family Centre after months of contract talks failed to produce a new collective agreement. The union members have been working without a contract since April 1, 2011, and on November 1 they voted 90 percent in favour of strike action. Five subsequent days of conciliation and mediation ended in a deadlock on Friday of last week.
This is the first such labour dispute at the centre, which offers mental-health services in offices, in schools and in children’s homes throughout Sudbury, Manitoulin Island, Chapleau, Espanola, Gogama, and points in between.
Robert Montgomery, union representative, told the Recorder on Monday, “As part of the Child-Family Centre there are between 80-83 employees who service about 2,300 children. We offer child and family mental health services for all those clients up to the age of 18. We offer services, assessments, treatment in behaviour, mental health issues, and to families in crisis, and services to those such as teens who suffer with depression-who may be suicidal.”
“We are the only game in town, the only group that provides these type of mental health services to children,” said Mr. Montgomery.
“Our previous contract expired at the end of March and we have been negotiating since May, so basically six months, and unfortunately we reached an impasse on Friday, which led us to take strike-lockout action as of midnight on Sunday,” explained Mr. Montgomery. “Hence the strike and the picket lines going up today.”
The Child and Family Centre are funded by the province through the Ministry of Community and Social Services and are run by a board of directors, which is bargaining for the agency.
The key issues in the labour dispute involve contract language relating to hours of work, job security, and salaries, said Mr. Montgomery. “Some of the key issues in the dispute is hours of work, job security and wages. This has always been an employee-based group, providing flexible hours to service clients, but what the employee wants is to dictate that we provide evening and weekend work. For instance, currently I can voluntarily arrange a meeting at night with a client to provide services, but the employer wants us to perform this service under a regular schedule during the week and on weekends.”
“We preach a work-life balance,” said Mr. Montgomery, who said another issue the employees have is to do with job security. “This is a sector that is continually faced with cuts, and having to agree to concessions in our contract. In the last two years we have lost 30 percent of our workforce, so we are providing less services than we did before. In our last contract we took days off without pay and the employer has continually been running a debt. This is paid off with cuts and concessions having to be made with our contract.”
“Wages are another concern of the employees,” continued Mr. Montgomery. “We haven’t seen any sector base funding increases in the last 10-15 years. There have been quite a few contracts agreed to without any wage increase to the employees, maybe getting more days off, but still we also have layoffs. All we are asking the employees are to keep up to the cost of living, and keep in mind, for instance, we are servicing a huge area. Manitoulin is a wide geographical area and it takes a lot of driving to service local clients—the more fuel costs rise the harder it is to service the area, and these cost concessions are one of the things we are negotiating for.”
“We are always willing to go to the table and negotiate a new agreement with the employer,” said Mr. Montgomery. “As a union we never want to get to the point we are currently in, because it affects the clients and services that we provide. We are open to going back to the table, but based on what we have seen and hear, the employer has made it clear they are not interested in negotiating the collective agreement any further. They are putting services to children at risk to pay off their debts.”
Mr. Montgomery added, “on the Island we have three employees the strike not only effects children and their families but these employees work in section classrooms in Manitoulin schools and family centres with children who have significant behaviour conditions. The clinical expertise needed can’t be provided during the strike-lockout, if these case specialists are on the picket line, as is the case, they are not in class helping serve children. It will have a deep impact on the community and the clients we normally service.”
Dr. Bertrand Guindon, acting executive director of the centre, confirmed the employees current contract  expired as of March 31, 2011. “We have been negotiating since, including going through conciliation, and a mediator being involved in the talks, but unfortunately the talks broke down and strike action was taken.”
One of the issues the employees have with the proposed contract is to do with hours of work. Dr. Guindon explained, “the agency runs from 9 am to 5 pm and the employees have a flexible schedule, if they need to the provide services after hours, and they provide these services on a voluntary basis. Where it has become problematic is it is becoming increasingly harder for the clients we serve to get these services during the day. If you are employed and work from 9-5 and you need our agency’s services, but the only time can see one of our workers is in the evening, that opportunity is gone, without a flexible regular schedule.”
“The management-board wants the agency to be able to schedule appointments in the evenings, without this being challenged,” said Dr. Guindon.”We can’t operate and provide these evening and weekend services on a voluntary basis.” He stressed, “our intent is not to have everyone have to work ever night or weekend, but evening hours is an expectation of clients and there needs to be some understanding we are responsible to meet the needs of our clients. The union would like this to continue on a voluntary basis but we want to have these appointments pre-scheduled.”
“As for the issue of wages, there was a very modest increase in the last settlement collective agreement,” continued Dr. Guindon. “What is not happening is we are not receiving (increased government) funding to the core budget of children’s services which makes it difficult to maintain services, staff and salaries. There hasn’t been any increase in the core funding to our budget, so if there are any salary increases it has to be done within the current fiscal plate we have.”
“Any increases have to be met in the current fiscal budget, not be money coming to cover this debt,” said Dr. Guindon. He pointed out the current offer on the table from the agency board-management is a four year, 11 percent increase in the current budget. “It’s an offer that in our opinion is fairly substantial, but keep in mind we have to recover this increase within our current core budget.”
Negotiations broke down as of last Friday, and mediation and conciliation has not panned out, said Dr. Guindon. “As the employer we are interested in finding a resolution to this conflict, with the employees getting a new contract and servicing the most vulnerable people in our society. I’m sure both parties are reflecting on where we are at in the negotiations, and we would like to start the negotiations sooner rather than later.”
Eighteen non-unionized employees will remain on the job at the centre, 12 in management and administration, and six clinical supervisors. The agency’s offices remain open and supervisors will maintain contact with registered clients and partners in children’s mental health services. Some clients may wish to wait for the labour dispute to be resolved to see their regular clinician, Dr. Guindon told the Sudbury Star.
No further talks have been scheduled.