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Women and part-time workers asked to shoulder an unfair burden, vulnerable will suffer

An interview with Warren "Smokey" Thomas

Women and part-time workers asked to shoulder an unfair burden, vulnerable will sufferby Inside Queen's Park

Warren 'Smokey' Thomas, an RPN, has been President of the Ontario Public Service Employees' Union since 2007.

IQP: How did you get to here from there?

Thomas: I started with the government at the former Kingston Psychiatric Hospital in 1971. I actually took my nursing in the hospital. Back then, the schools of nursing were still in the hospitals. They called us Registered Nursing Assistants; today we're Registered Practical Nurses. I went to the private sector for a couple of years but came back because I missed psychiatry. I got involved in the union in the early 80s. We changed from an association to a certified trade union in 1975, after a big campaign called Free the Servants. I became a union steward because I was interested in employee assistance programs. Then quite by accident, the local president, vice-president and president all stepped down and I got acclaimed. In 1993, I got elected to the OPSEU executive board, in 2001 as first vice-president-treasurer, and 2007 as president. I've been doing union stuff for a long time.

IQP: Last week's budget imposed tight restrictions on your members in respect to pay and benefits. What is your reaction?

Thomas: There's actually a lot of good stuff in the budget. But when it comes to how they're going to control wages, most of the broader public sector is historically underpaid and agencies are underfunded. So a predominantly female workplace with a very high percentage of part-time workers is being asked to shoulder an unfair burden, because with inflation over two years, a no-wage increase if you take inflation over two years, it could bring a 4% wage cut. It appears that pay equity is protected, but we're seeking a lawyer's opinion. How does it get paid? Is the government going to put forward more money to agencies to cover legal pay equity obligations? Managers' performance bonuses are exempt, so they might get no raise but bigger bonuses. I'm convening an emergency meeting of our executive board. To protect the collective bargaining rights of our membership will require a creative approach to bargaining. The corporate tax breaks cost the government two to three times more than they project in wage savings, and I'll believe they're going to save that much when I see it. I predict labour unrest but I don't know if it will result in strikes.

IQP: The reach of "Ontario's union" extends from the OPS proper to the Broad Public Sector. You are concerned about the Children's Aid Societies.

Thomas: A lot of them were on the brink of going bankrupt. So OPSEU and CUPE got together, Sid Ryan and I did a press conference and the government kicked in one-time money to bail out the CASs in the worst shape. But they're almost all in bad shape. I predict this budget will drive more CASs into bankruptcy so that they won't be able to meet payroll. Government mandates the services you must provide but doesn't provide the funding to deliver all of those services. There's no flexibility in the funding for urgent needs, such as the case up north where a judge ordered a child sent for treatment in the U.S. at thousands of dollars a day, and the agency had to pay without any budget for it. For a child with a mental health issue, your chances of getting service are almost nil in Ontario today. That whole sector, from teenagers to adolescents, has been neglected for decades by all three political parties. I don't know how to get it on their radar to make it a priority. Children already under-funded now face cuts. I don't understand how they square that with a corporate tax cut. The whole transfer payment sector is long overdue for a funding formula review, and now the government is trying for a lower deficit on the backs of those who serve our most vulnerable people.

IQP: What about the hospital sector?

Thomas: The PCs under Mike Harris created a mess. The Liberals think they're going to fix the mess by creating the Local Health Integration Networks, which aren't accountable to anyone. When we sought an injunction to stop movement of mental health beds without consulting patients and service providers, the judge caught onto the fact the LHINs are unaccountable. There was supposed to be a review but the budget puts that off for two years. That's a big mistake. The LHINs are messing up healthcare all around the province, with competitive bidding coming back into homecare. Wrong 30 years ago; wrong today.

IQP: Your thoughts on deinstitutionalization and society's handling of mental health?

Thomas: Back in the '70s, Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital with its community outreach programs was a model for the world. The Tories didn't like it because it didn't fit with their ideology so they closed the most progressive psychiatric hospital in the world. When I first started at KPH we had about 1,400 patients. I worked male admissions after classes, and we were always over count, with 45 patients on a floor built for 25. We did all the mental health assessments for the federal corrections system. The psychiatric hospitals were always the avenue of last resort for society, giving safe haven to people no one could serve, who hadn't broken any laws but their illness made them difficult.

IQP: OPSEU has launched its 'Ontario 2020 Dialogue' with business, labour and NGOs. Tell our readers where that is headed.

Thomas: We held our conference and discussed scenarios for education, health and community. There was anonymous electronic scoring of all the suggestions, so everybody could vote freely feel. The good ideas that came out of it have been collated and the steering committee is meeting again next week. I am going to propose creation of a centre of excellence to establish some kind of semi-permanent group out of this conference. I'd like to see the Premier's Council re-established. But just exactly what the next step will be, I'm not certain.

Posted: April 06, 2010

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