Friday, September 10, 2010

Supporting the Strikers at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine

I spent a bit of time yesterday morning at the picket line of the support staff who work at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine (NOSM), who are members of Ontario Public Service Employee Union (OPSEU) Local 677. The strike has been going on since August 16, after almost a year of negotiations trying to reach a first contract. Yesterday was a day of solidarity, in which supporters -- particularly supporters in the broader campus community, given that it is the first week of undergraduate classes, but those of us from off campus as well -- were encouraged to stop by the lines and to attend a rally in the afternoon that turned into an action focused on the office of the president of the university. I wasn't able to go to the afternoon event because of childcare responsibilities, but it was good to spend some time on the line. I got to chat with folks I know who are on strike and others from the larger campus community who were also there to show support.

I think this mobilization was an important first step, though my preliminary sense is that much more work needs to be done to build support for the strike on and off campus, and to challenge the tendency of unions to restrict their vision to very traditional kinds of strike-related activities and to ignore the centrality of broader political mobilization in winning strikes in a neoliberal era. I noted the dangers of this tendency in the context of my post-mortem of the massive mining strike that dominated the Sudbury community for just under a year and ended in early summer with a sound defeat of the workers. The lessons in that piece need to be transposed a bit to account for the different character of this dispute, but my overall sense that broader (campus and non-campus) community mobilization is the key to a victory for workers is much the same.

Sudbury's local daily paper has a good article on yesterday's event, which I have included below, but before I get to that, I want to make a couple of key points that are important to the dispute at the moment. One is the line by the medical school administration that their hands are tied because of provincial government efforts to push wage restraint onto the broader public sector. While the wage restraint efforts by the province are hugely important and need to be a focus for organizing by unions and communities (in the context of larger resistance to the post-G20 austerity agenda that is sweeping the world right now), this particular rhetorical use of this phenomenon by the medical school administration is outright deceptive. From what I understand, wages have not even been discussed yet in the bargaining. What the workers want, and what the administration is refusing, are very basic quality-of-work and quality-of-life issues that do not fall under wage restraint at all. The workers, for instance, do not like the demand by management to be able to bring them in on evenings and weekends with minimal notice and no overtime pay. Go figure. The workers also want their already existing benefit package and various other already existing work process standards to be enshrined in a contract so they cannot be arbitrarily changed by the administration -- this strike is for a first contract for this bargaining unit, remember. These are all pretty basic things to expect in a collective agreement.

The other key point raised in yesterday's action was the attempt by Laurentian University administration to distance itself from the strike. Again, this is disingenuous at the very least. While there is some technical separation between the medical school and Laurentian -- the med school also has a campus at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, where support workers are also on strike -- the line advanced by Laurentian that they are completely separate is just a lie. NOSM is Laurentian's faculty of medicine. That is integral to how NOSM is organized, to how its role on campus is envisioned, and to how it carries out its mission to produce doctors for northern Ontario. Laurentian also derives a great deal of prestige from having the medical school, and frequently uses its accomplishments in promoting the broader university. Also, the two senior spots on the board of governors of NOSM are the presidents of Lakehead and Laurentian. And as someone pointed out to me yesterday, the only words on NOSM's official logo are "Lakehead * Laurentian * Medicine."

So I encourage people in Sudbury and people across northern Ontario to put pressure on the NOSM administration but also on the presidents of Laurentian and Lakehead and tell them you want them to use the power of their positions to push for a fair deal for NOSM support staff. According to literature being handed out by the strikers, you can get in touch with Dominic Giroux, president of Laurentian, by calling 705-673-6567 or emailing president@laurentian.ca. You can get in touch with Brian J.R. Stevenson, president of Lakehead, at 807-343-8200 or at bstevens@lakehead.ca.

Here is the article from today's Sudbury Star:

Rally supports strikers: Graduate Students'Association organizes rally for Northern Ontario Medical School staff
by Carol Mulligan, Sudbury Star, September 10, 2010.

About 40 students, Laurentian University faculty members and striking support staff from the Northern Ontario School of Medicine took their protest from the entrance of the university to the office of Laurentian president Dominic Giroux on Thursday afternoon.

What started as a solidarity rally for 150 members of OPSEU Local 677, organized by the Graduate Students' Association at Laurentian, turned into a long, winding march up the hill through the main university entrance to Giroux's office on the 11th floor of the R.D. Parker building.

The delegation was noisy but orderly as it demanded Giroux use his influence to encourage Northern Ontario School of Medicine Dean Dr. Roger Strasser to bargain in good faith with office and technical workers who are striking for a first contract.

They came carrying a paper chain whose links carried the names of students demanding Giroux get involved in the dispute.

Giroux was away in Ottawa and is not due back until Monday, but other top administrators with the university met demonstrators in the narrow hallway outside Giroux's office.

The delegation demanded that Giroux, who is vice-chair of the medical school's board of directors, put pressure on the rest of the board to settle a collective agreement.

Rafiq Rahemtulla, president of the Graduate Students' Association, told administrators that students throughout the university, not just those at Northern Ontario School of Medicine, are being affected by the strike.

There have been delays at the university entrance caused by picketers distributing literature, but that is the least of the inconvenience being experienced by students, said Rahemtulla.

Some research projects are being affected because medical school support staff are off the job, he said.

Striking members work at everything from clerical support to fundraising, provide Internet technical support for a school that relies on telemedicine and co-ordinates residencies for fourth-year medical students.

The delegation charged that the university is distancing itself from the labour dispute when, in fact, the Northern Ontario School of Medicine is the university's faculty of medicine and Strasser reports to Giroux. Some pointed out that medical degrees are granted by Laurentian University.

Chris Mercer, chief of staff at Laurentian, explained to protesters that the medical school is a separate legal entity from Laurentian and said the university is not represented on the Northern Ontario School of Medicine's bargaining committee, nor is it privy to negotiations.

The school has a second campus at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay and its OPSEU support staff are also on strike.

Local 677 went on strike Aug. 16 after a year of trying to bargain a first collective agreement.

Strasser has said the medical school's hands are tied because the Liberal government of Premier Dalton McGuinty has essentially frozen private-sector salaries.

But OPSEU Local 677 president Tyler England said the strike is not about money. Members want a collective agreement that puts in writing the wages and benefits they now have, says England.

The opposing factions met for two days of bargaining with a provincial mediator Sept. 1 and 2, but the talks were adjourned and could not be rescheduled for almost two weeks because the mediator was unavailable. They are set to resume Sept. 14-17 in Thunder Bay.

England said Thursday his bargaining team would have lking without the mediator, but he said the school's negotiators would not agree to that request.

Several Laurentian professors brought their students to the picket line Thursday. Political science professor John Peters, who is vice-president of the Sudbury and District Labour Council, said the labour community will give OPSEU strikers what they need to win a fair contract.

Sociology professor Gary Kinsman essentially held a first-year class on the picket line and spoke about his frustration at having to cross a picket line for the first time in his life, something he finds morally objectionable.

Peters, Kinsman and others are members of the Laurentian University Faculty Association and are required to report to work under the terms of their collective agreement.

A young woman representing undergraduate students said it made her sick to have to cross a picket line, but said she felt duty-bound to attend class.

Kinsman and others warned that picket lines could turn nasty -and even violent -as students and others on their way into the university are delayed by strikers.

Mercer agreed that strikers have the right to lawfully picket, but the union and others charge the university is misleading students saying picketers do not have the right to detain them.

That is leading to hard feelings and frustration for motorists, one of whom dodged through a line of picketers during Thursday's rally.

Mercer promised to arrange a meeting with Giroux next week if possible. Protesters promised to return if that meeting were not set up.

Political science professor Alan Shandro brought his class of students to the picket line and advised them on ways in which they could get involved in the labour dispute.

He urged them to contact the president's office or write letters, asking Giroux to get involved in settling the strike.

In August, the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario, which represents more than 300,000 college and university students, passed a resolution supporting OPSEU Local 677, and encouraging members to write letters and participate in solidarity events.


(I should add, in the interest of full disclosure, that my partner is also a member of OPSEU Local 677 and a worker at the medical school, but in the bargaining unit of that local that is not on strike at the moment. If you poke around my blog a little bit to get a sense of my politics, it should be clear that this hasn't resulted in me saying anything I wouldn't be saying anyway.)

1 comment:

Scott said...

And I should add, my thanks to Rafiq for drawing my attention to the Star article.