Union says Thunder Bay jail prematurely gearing up for strike

The Ontario Public Service Employees Union says the province is setting a negative tone for bargaining by preparing temporary housing for managers at jails including the Thunder Bay District Jail.
OPSEU Local 737 vice-president Greg Arnold says the provincial government is renovating the inside of the former superintendent's house beside the Thunder Bay District Jail. The union believes the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services is preparing accommodations for managers who would be called in to work in the event of a strike. (Jeff Walters/CBC)

The union representing Ontario's correctional officers says the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services appears to be building housing where managers would stay in the event of a strike — including at the Thunder Bay District Jail.

The Ontario Public Service Employees Union [OPSEU] says negotiations aren't scheduled to begin for months, as the current collective agreement for jail guards expires at the end of December.

"We feel that this is potentially bargaining in bad faith," said Greg Arnold, vice-president of OPSEU Local 737, which represents correctional officers at the Thunder Bay jail.

Arnold told CBC News renovations including new bathrooms and a recreation room are underway inside the former superintendent's residence on the jail property, even though the building is often vacant, and used only for meetings. 

"The last time they put any money into that house was... prior to the last labour disruption," he said. "That was... 10, 12 years ago."

An OPSEU news release Friday said the ministry is being "secretive" about the construction happening at several jails across the province. 

"We haven't ... gotten a straight answer yet,"  added Arnold.

'Potential for labour disruption exists'  

OPSEU president Warren [Smokey] Thomas estimated that the total cost of preparing the "managers' strike accommodations" is over $500,000. 

"If they took that money and invested it in their front-line staff and facilities, it would go a long way in ensuring there weren't any further labour disputes," said Thomas. 

Arnold said the Thunder Bay District Jail is short-staffed and overcrowded, creating unsafe working conditions. 

"We ...were supposed to be in a new facility 10 years ago," he said. "We're still working out of an antiquated facility."

In an e-mail response to CBC News, Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services spokesperson Andrew Morrison said the government is "fully committed to the collective bargaining process and to achieving a fair negotiated settlement."

"However, the potential for labour disruption exists in any contract negotiations. It would be irresponsible to put public safety at risk by failing to prepare for such an outcome," Morrison added. 

"The work being carried out at some of our correctional institutions will help the government ensure public safety. The same work will also provide lasting improvements to institutions that will help us ensure the safety and security of both staff and inmates."

The ministry has not confirmed what if any kind of work is underway at the former jail superintendent's quarters in Thunder Bay.