Thunder Bay

Ontario public sector union, NDP, renew calls to end private highway plowing contracts

An Ontario public sector union has renewed calls for winter highway maintenance to be brought back "in-house," but the province says more stringent oversight is the way to go.

Transportation ministry says it will supervise maintenance contractors more directly, in some cases

OPSEU and the provincial NDP say they want to see winter highway maintenance return to the public sector. (Yvon Theriault/Radio-Canada)

A union that represents thousands of Ontario's public sector workers, as well as one of the province's political parties, have both renewed calls for winter highway maintenance to be brought back "in-house," but the province says more stringent oversight is the way to go.

The Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) and the provincial NDP have both issued statements advocating for operations like snow plowing and sanding to be performed by government employees, rather than companies who bid on contracts in a given area.

The calls were renewed in the wake of the announced liquidation of Carillion, a British construction giant. Its Canadian subsidiary — who is one of several highway maintenance contractors in Ontario and responsible for operations in eight areas, including to the east of Thunder Bay — has stated it is not currently affected.

Still, the president of OPSEU, Warren "Smokey" Thomas, said he wants to see a shift away from private contractors on Ontario's highways. "We're calling on the government to bring it back in-house, to make it what it's supposed to be: a public service," he said.

In a written statement, Ontario's new minister of transportation, Kathryn McGarry, stated that, as far as the situation with Carillion is concerned, "an arrangement is in place that will allow [winter maintenance] services to continue uninterrupted for the remainder of this winter."

Thomas said OPSEU has been repeating its call since winter highway operations were privatized roughly 20 years ago, citing, what he calls, an overall reduction in service at a higher cost and "a lack of prompt attention to the highways."

In 2013-2014, the province, as well as several contractors, came under fire, prompting an apology from a former transportation minister and a special report from the auditor general.

The government has since implemented a number of the watchdog's recommendations, including more stringent monitoring but Thomas argued it hasn't gone far enough and, in a number of cases, contractors who don't meet the ministry's standards don't end up paying.

He acknowledged that when plowing was done by government employees, they were members of OPSEU, but said that his union's advocacy is about improving safety and reducing costs.

"I drive a lot," he said. "I'm not just exaggerating because I want those people back in OPSEU, I'm saying it because I have lived it."

Earlier in January, the NDP also made a similar call; in a written statement, leader Andrea Horwath said Ontario "can own our assets instead of renting them."

Thomas said he'd like to see maintenance contracts returned to the public service when they come up for renewal.

Ministry promising 'further improvements' to private tenders

The Ministry of Transportation, which is responsible for tendering contracts and enforcing the regulations, doesn't appear to be heading in that direction.

When asked to comment on whether the province would consider moving expiring contracts back to the public sector, a ministry spokesperson said in an email that "the contracting industry has delivered winter maintenance for many years successfully," but that, going forward, it will have the option to more directly supervise highway maintenance.

As a contract is re-tendered, the ministry can implement what it calls, a "ministry directed contract model," which "includes ministry staff directing and supervising the work." Another model where contractors are responsible for direct supervision under the ministry's guidelines still exists.

"Moving forward with our new models and tenders, we are introducing further improvements to keep our roads safe," the ministry said.

With files from Mike Crawley and The Canadian Press