WITH news that talks will resume today to end the four-month strike at the Port Arthur Health Centre, thoughts turn to the aftermath. Things do not look good.
To their credit, the 57 unionized women who work as medical aides, receptionists and clerks have shown patience and resolve since April 9, seeking wage parity with their counterparts at another local clinic.
It took a long time but public sympathy was turning to pressure on clinic doctors and management to return to bargaining. If their union had waited a while longer, chances seemed good that growing frustration, especially among patients, would serve to get talks started again. Instead, it got ugly.
Things escalated innocently enough with the presence of hundreds of union members from out of town joining the picket line to back Unifor president Jerry Dias’ personal plea for a resumption of negotiations. But then things went too far.
One night, a chain link fence was erected around the clinic property, blocking patients and doctors from entering. The union claimed not to know who put it up. And yet on Aug. 9, a Unifor Facebook post took credit for doing just that.
The clinic obtained a court injunction that ordered the fence taken down and the clinic entrance re-opened. Dias claimed he had not been personally served with the notice and so he ignored it. This response soured support among those who saw the ruling as a small measure of protection for patients who have become pawns in the dispute.
The soured environment got worse after alleged vandalism which, according to the head of the Ontario Medical Association, did considerable destruction inside. Dr. Nadia Alam told The Chronicle-Journal that refrigerated vaccines, medications and fertility samples were damaged. A pharmacy inside the clinic operated by a private company was vandalized, Alam said, as were internet lines. Cameras, computers and servers were smashed.
The damage is under investigation. The union condemned the alleged vandalism.
“We certainly don’t support that kind of action,” said Unifor’s Andy Savela on Monday. “It doesn’t help, particularly when parties are looking at trying to talk and getting back together.”
There’s been some shifting in public support between the two combatants in the labour dispute. Now, concern is increasingly with the patients. The alleged vandalism is one more obstacle to patient health fueling a frustration already heightened by months of obstructions.
Alam said doctors have been threatened and some will not return to the clinic. This in an era of doctor shortages in the North, especially among specialists.
Placing patients in harm’s way presents a dilemma. The very employees who know these patients will surely have felt sympathy for them, and felt sympathy in return from most patients who crossed the picket line for essential appointments — many of them months in the making. Patients are letting their own health problems fester out of support for the cause or fear of bullying and intimidation. Others blame the doctors.
Both sides have to look patients in the face when this is over.
The clinic says it has offered a significant increase in wages and benefits. The union is holding out for a better offer.
If an agreement is reached today, Thunder Bay will heave a sigh of relief. But underneath it all, the stench of goon tactics will not be forgotten. This was no way to force the issue.