The Ontario Public Services Employees Union (OPSEU) labour dispute continues. The Ontario government is steadfast in its refusal to bargain a fair deal for 45,000 public service workers and taxpayers.
We are in our eighth week. No mortgage payments made, no saving for university, no family vacations, no new cars, trucks, boats, or motors. Workers are starting to feel the economic pain, but their resolve to negotiate a fair deal also is steadfast.
The forest fire season in Ontario began April 1. Normally, crew leaders and crew bosses are hired by mid-April, and the crew members would have reported for duty by the 29th. People, systems, and equipment are usually ready as the forest fire hazard grows.
Ten four-person crews usually are on alert in Fort Frances, or the forward attack bases at Vedette Lake or Quetico Centre—ready and able to respond to any fire report.
Not this year. There are no crews.
The Ontario government has forced their FireRangers to walk the picket line instead of the fire line. Values from a trapper’s shack to expensive houses, your cabins and cottages, and thousands of hectares of forest are at risk. The management at Abitibi-Consolidated knows what effect a 30,000-ha fire in prime woodlands would have on their operations.
Which contractors will lose their cut blocks, which truckers will lose their equipment, and how many mill workers and managers will lose their jobs? The costs are incalculable, but Ernie Eves is willing to take that risk.
More than 15,000 government workers are required by law to maintain essential services during a strike. These positions are so critical that it is illegal for the workers to strike. The Emergency Service Worker is another group. The Ontario FireRangers are in this category.
In Fort Frances, the emergency agreement requires three four-person crews to work when conditions warrant. No Fort Frances crews have worked or trained since the strike began.
The weather has been cold and wet, but that can change in a hurry. Three days of warm, dry, windy weather can set the stage for an inferno.
Is it worth the risk? The government seems to think so. Ernie Eves is willing to take that risk.
The key to suppressing forest fires in Ontario has been to catch them early and keep them small. For anyone who lives in the north, the potential to destroy timber, jobs, buildings, and lives is very real.
It is difficult to suppress fast-moving fires in normal years, when we are ready. During this labour dispute, we are not ready. Most of the specialized waterbombing aircraft are not ready to fly and some are sitting in hangars with no engines. The crews’ vehicles parked at the Fort Frances MNR with thousands of dollars of equipment in them have no drivers. Normally, they are stored in a secure parking area.
There are three tired fire managers and a fire clerk on duty. There are no FireRangers! Is it worth the risk? Ernie Eves seems to think so.
This strike could be settled very quickly. The only ingredient lacking is the political will to leave our pensions and benefits alone, offer a general wage increase that might catch up to inflation, and offer people real full-time jobs.
President, OPSEU Local #711
Fire Management Technician