Ontario's correctional workers and the government have agreed to move to binding arbitration within the next 60 days — and to designate the province's nearly 6,000 jail guards, parole and probation officers as essential service workers.
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That means the union agreed to give up its right to strike, not just for this contract but for successive ones.
It's a tradeoff that leaders of the Ontario Public Service Employees union said their membership asked for because it would recognize them as essential service workers — and would see that all future bargaining is subject to binding arbitration.
"That, for the public, means they won't be in this situation two or three years from now where the government's spending millions of dollars getting ready [for a strike] ... and for our workers they have the security that they don't have to go on strike," OPSEU president Warren (Smokey) Thomas told reporters Saturday, hours after the deal was reached.
"They want to be treated the same as first responders, law enforcement officers. They're in that group and that's a big thing for them, that recognition," Thomas said.
Wages, safety, caseload
The union had also initially tied a pay increase to the concession of giving up their right to strike, but Thomas said that all the financial aspects of the deal will go before the arbitrator.
Both sides signed the agreement at 4:20 a.m., less than 20 hours before the strike deadline — and roughly 14 months after negotiations first began.
Wages, workload and job safety became the the focal point of bargaining. The tentative deal addresses some of the latter issues, but both sides agreed to go to send all financial issues to binding arbitration, the chairman for the union's correctional bargaining team said.
"We were able to get some improvements in time off," Tom O'Neill said Saturday. "And we were able to get improvements in workload issues for our folks in the community, who are largely understaffed."
That translates into an obligation on the government's part to hire another 25 probation officers, the union said.
Although Thomas and O'Neill both said that the collective agreement should also improve conditions for inmates, there's nothing within the deal that will increase staffing levels in the jails, they say.
But O'Neill said the union reached a "good faith agreement" with the government to end a three-year hiring freeze.
That's something that the government said is reflected in having 146 students begin classes Monday in Hamilton to train as corrections officers, a spokesman for the correctional services ministry said.
Correctional Services Minister Yasir Naqvi also promised Saturday to work with corrections officers to ensure positive developments within the province's jails.
The minister said that he was happy to have avoided a strike and commended both sides for reaching a deal.
"Our big focus now, of course, is to resume normal operations in all our jails," he told reporters.
"I very much look forward to continue working with our corrections, probations and parole officers to ensure that their health and safety is always protected — and, of course, that of the inmates that are in our care and custody."
8,000 in jail, union says
About 8,000 people are in custody in Ontario, while another 56,000 are out on probation or parole.
Overcrowding has been an ongoing issue at some facilities, Thomas said, with cells designed to hold one person being filled with as many as three. The province's move to train more officers signals a positive change, he said.
Al Riley, a corrections officer at the Toronto South Detention Centre, told CBC News that he and his colleagues are happy to see a deal reached — but happier still at the promise of better working conditions.
"The last few years it's been really bad and it's been really tough for a lot of the staff to work," he said.
Talks had been scheduled between the province and the union all day, because of a strike deadline set at midnight. CBC News on Friday reported details of a plan to have managers from an array of Ontario government departments — including lawyers, finance officials and speech writers — step in if the correctional workers walked off the job.
Last month, workers voted against a tentative deal that had been reached in November.