Ontario safety inspectors strike for safety and a fair deal

The Euroslide is usually a popular CNE staple, but not this year. Days before the exhibit opened for the first time in two years, the ride broke down and sent someone to the hospital in the process.

Inspecting the Euroslide, as well as the other CNE rides, is just one of the many tasks that safety inspectors normally carry out. These workers inspect everything from amusement park rides and food trucks to elevators and nuclear power plants across the province. They are the frontline workers of the Technical Standards and Safety Authority (TSAA), a private, not-for-profit corporation created by Mike Harris’ government in 1997 as part of a “cost-cutting” exercise. The TSAA replaced the security and standards functions of the Ontario Ministry of Consumer and Commercial Relations (now known as the Ministry of Business and Public Service Delivery) and is no stranger to controversy.

Unionization and negotiations

In 2021, TSSA safety inspectors, numbering more than 170, united and won their union campaign, becoming members of OPSEU/OPSEU Local 546. They unionized to address a host of inequities and mismanagement in their workplace and negotiated with the TSAA for their first contract since. On July 21, 2022, their employer left the bargaining table. The workers had no choice but to go on strike to get their first contract. Key issues in the negotiations include wages, benefits, understaffing and better employer accountability for public safety standards. As explained in a union update, many negotiations center on whether or not to maintain certain aspects of current company policy. For example, workers want to maintain current overtime rates, the ability to carry over vacation days and flexible hours, and their employer wants to cancel them.

The TSSA has repeatedly said it is acting in “good faith”. Sure, saying you are acting in good faith is not the same as acting in good faith. This rhetoric is a way to divert the conversation from the concrete. Like any labor dispute, this dispute stems from a disagreement about what workers deserve. The employer believes that workers deserve less overtime, fewer vacation days and less flexible hours. Naturally, the workers disagree. If the TSSA is genuinely interested in engaging honestly – that is. in good faith – they must then explain why their position is defensible. Instead, they hired 20 uncertified scab inspectors during the strike. Their actions, not their words, show how they really feel.

#StrikeforSafety

While safety inspectors wait for their employer to come back to the table, solidarity actions continue across the province in places like Belleville, Kingston, Sarnia, London, Waterloo, La Coruña and Toronto. The pickets held at the CNE in Toronto attracted particular attention and support. The strikers have repeatedly raised concerns about the safety of the show’s rides and the qualifications of non-union staff and third-party contractors who were brought in to carry out the inspections in their absence.

These concerns were heightened when the Euroslide broke down and injured a CNE worker. CNE CEO Darrell Brown insisted the accident “has nothing to do with the strike” and that “equipment sometimes malfunctions”. Of course, and sometimes accidents are avoided when the people who know how to do their job are able to do it. As Bargaining Team Member Cory Knipe noted, “supervisors [non-union staff] haven’t been on the road for a while, they normally do office work more than anything else. The [union] the inspectors, it’s their daily job, when we go there, we check the nuts and bolts and what comes loose.

As the strike is extended by the TSSA, another worker concern is the delay in elevator inspections. Safety inspectors are responsible for examining more than 60,000 elevators in the province. When they are unable to do their job, dangerous situations arise. Residents of an apartment block in London experience this first-hand as they continue to wait for a delayed lift inspection. The nine-story building has been without an elevator for six weeks and residents are understandably frustrated. The situation is particularly serious for the elderly and people with reduced mobility. Matt Walsh, a resident who lives on the seventh floor, said that “it looks like we’ve been dragged down the deck.”

Break the stone wall

The TSAA seems indifferent to the people at the bottom of the bridge. As the strike enters its fifth week, they continue to stubbornly refuse to come back to the table to reach a fair deal. The union made another offer to the employer on August 19 and was met with radio silence according to an update provided by the union four days later. This perpetuates a pattern of “filibuster” which workers say has been constant throughout the bargaining process.

Right now, no one can guess when a deal will be struck, and if it is struck, will it be fair? One that respects the work safety inspectors have done for decades to keep our rides, lifts and more safe. What is certain is that they join a nascent movement of workers who are tired of being pushed around by their employers.

Like many on the front lines during the pandemic, safety inspectors have been told they are essential because their employer has driven them into the ground. Now they’re trying to get by and their employer tells them they’re disposable. But it doesn’t work, as a growing number of workers, safety inspectors know they are essentials and they are ready to fight for the working conditions they deserve.

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