Source: Fightback

It’s almost impossible to go a day in Ontario without encountering something regulated by the Technical Standards and Safety Authority (TSSA)—elevators, amusement park rides, food trucks, ski lifts, nuclear power plants, even boiler rooms and pressure devices in homes and workplaces are all regularly inspected by TSSA workers. These inspectors, who organized with the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) Local 56 in early 2021, have been on strike since July 21 after voting 89 per cent in favour of giving their bargaining team a strike mandate in May. Chronic understaffing, a lack of accountability for public safety, and wages that lag behind inflation have left workers with no choice but to take matters into their own hands. Throughout the next few weeks, OPSEU workers will be on picket lines across the province to demand better pay and conditions in the face of TSSA’s consistent hostility towards the workers and the union. 

Issues at stake

OPSEU’s main demand for inspectors is a seven-year wage grid in which workers would move up every year, contrary to the current model in which raises are based entirely upon subjective performance reviews which amount to what one worker called “a popularity contest.” TSSA’s counter-offer was a 15-year wage grid based on performance reviews and salaries. Will Gilmet, an inspector with TSSA for more than 12 years, would fall into year 9 on TSSA’s proposed wage grid given his current salary. This effectively ensures that people who have already been shown preferential treatment and have been getting larger wages will be farther along in the wage grid than people who have been getting shorted on their raises, regardless of how long they’ve been with the company. “In any case where I’ve talked with inspectors and looked where they would fall in the proposed wage grid, everyone is behind,” Gilmet said. OPSEU’s demands also include other gains for the workers, like giving inspectors who work 20 or more hours per week full-time benefits instead of only people who work more than 40 hours, and making an objective structure for layoffs with mandatory notice.

According to Gilmet, inspectors hired after 2011 are not getting paid for the travel time between their home and the work site. Because the inspectors start their work days from home, then often have to travel hours to work sites to complete their inspections, this can mean many hours of unpaid labour per day. While he was in training in his first year with the company, Gilmet brought to management’s attention that this was a violation of the Employment Standards Act, which says that if a worker is required to travel to a location other than their usual workplace, that is considered working time rather than unpaid commuting time. TSSA denied this, leading Gilmet to take the issue to the Ministry of Labour which agreed that this constituted an ESA violation. The solution the Ministry of Labour then posed was for each employee to make an individual claim for lost wages for up to three months retroactively—they were completely unwilling to enforce anything on the TSSA bosses themselves. This issue was one of the main items brought to the OPSEU bargaining team when the inspectors first unionized, but according to Gilmet, “it’s not even going to be looked at by OPSEU from what we’ve been told. It was not in the proposed collective agreement from TSSA. It’s just not even mentioned anywhere that we can see. It looks like they’re just dropping the whole travel thing.” By dropping the demand for travel pay, the union will in turn leave their members vulnerable to the inaction of the Ministry of Labour and the TSSA, meaning workers will continue to not receive pay for travel time.

Union busting

TSSA’s attempts to stifle the union began before the workers even unionized. At the start of the pandemic, they laid off 15-20 per cent of their workforce. But according to Gilmet, the layoffs were not based on seniority or performance. Instead, every worker agitating for unionization or who questioned the bosses in any way was laid off in this period. Then in May 2021, shortly after the inspectors had become organized with OPSEU, all TSSA workers got their yearly raises except for the newly unionized workers. OPSEU promptly reminded the bosses that this is illegal, which resulted in the unionized workers retroactively getting their raises. However, it was around half of what the workers were used to getting. Gilmet said that the workers pushed the union to fight for equitable raises or include it in their collective agreement, but the union representatives said they were unable to fight for any further improvements on the basis of discrimination if the TSSA did eventually give them raises. It is unsurprising, then, that the unionized inspectors have not yet gotten their yearly raises that they were supposed to get this past May.

Creating wage differentials between any two groups of workers results in downward pressure on the wages of all workers. This is an age-old tactic used by bosses to turn workers against one another, and one that is especially disgusting in the face of skyrocketing inflation. A cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) which attaches wages to inflation is something that is being fought for and discussed across the labour movement. Workers are not willing to just sit by as their cost of living climbs higher and higher in the face of stagnating wages, and in fact COLA is a basic necessity for all workers. It is only with solidarity across the entire movement that a cost-of-living victory will be achieved, and the TSSA is well aware of this fact as they use these blatantly divisive tactics against their workers.

OPSEU met with the TSSA 13 times before putting in an application with the Ministry of Labour regarding their intent to strike if no progress was made. The TSSA stonewalled the negotiation process despite the union trying hard to achieve a collective agreement in the mediation process. On July 20, the TSSA walked away from the bargaining table, forcing safety inspectors to strike on July 21. TSSA also then immediately started looking for strikebreakers, telling workers to contact their supervisors if they wanted to continue working. As if this wasn’t enough, TSSA then sidestepped the union’s bargaining team and sent a PDF of a proposed agreement directly to the workers, telling them that if they voted to ratify by midnight on July 20 they could avoid the lockout. This cynical maneuver was extremely insulting. “OPSEU knew from our feedback […] that we were absolutely not having anything to do with that collective agreement,” says Gilmet. The proposed agreement actually offered the workers lower overtime pay on holidays, three fewer paid sick days, and less vacation time than they had before, in addition to TSSA’s proposed 15-year wage grid, not to mention the undemocratic and extremely impractical method of circumventing OPSEU. As Gilmet put it, “How can you even vote on a collective agreement that hasn’t been brought to you by the union or by the labour board?” 

According to Gilmet, after this point TSSA refused to negotiate further, saying that their final offer had been made and it was up to the inspectors themselves to take it or leave it. With the CNE fast approaching, union representatives have been trying to bring TSSA bosses back to the bargaining table so the inspectors can get back to work with fair pay and ensure the safety of the approximately 1.4 million people expected to attend. Laura Desjardins, TSSA’s vice president of human resources, said “Given the reasonable and fair contract we have offered and our availability for ongoing discussions, TSSA does not see why inspectors have chosen to go on strike.” When one looks at the facts, TSSA’s claims that it was OPSEU who was negotiating in bad faith are easy to see as the crocodile tears they are. 

Use of scabs threatens public safety

The TSSA are using supervisors as strikebreakers to inspect the CNE, but the union inspectors and many others are skeptical about the safety of the event. “We used to have 10 to 12 inspectors coming in the first week before opening, and now we’re down to a couple of supervisors, maybe three or four doing our work,” says Stephanie Coyne, who has worked for TSSA for 18 years. 

Beyond that, Cory Knipe, the OPSEU bargaining chair, says it’s likely the supervisors are out of practice. “The supervisors have not been out on the road for a while, they normally do office work more than anything.” Defeating the union is evidently more important to the bosses at TSSA than the safety and livelihoods of not only their workers, but the millions who are now at risk since the inspectors haven’t been able to work. 

OPSEU workers have been picketing at the opening day of the CNE, and it is crucial that there is a show of solidarity to inform visitors of the potential dangers and put the pressure on the bosses to concede to the workers’ demands.

Years of privatization eroded public safety and working conditions

The work now done by the TSSA used to be under the Ministry for Consumer and Commercial Relations, but in 1997 TSSA was set up as a private, not-for-profit corporation as a product of Mike HarrisCommon Sense Revolution. The conditions for workers and standards for safety have stagnated and in many areas even regressed. For example, Gilmet told us that before 1997 new hires had three years of training at a normal salary, whereas now under TSSA new hires get only one year of training at a seriously reduced rate.

Privatization of safety inspection has had serious consequences. On August 10, 2008, the Sunrise propane explosion resulted in the deaths of one worker and one emergency responder, the evacuation of 6,000 Toronto residents from their homes, and millions of dollars in damage. The blast was the result of a truck-to-truck propane transfer that is strictly prohibited under local safety regulations that TSSA inspectors did not enforce. There was a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of the residents of the surrounding areas that claimed that the TSSA was aware that the illegal transfers were happening and failed to take action, and the judge ruled against TSSA. 

Still not seeing the kinds of changes that would protect against other similar tragedies, Toronto residents in the surrounding area appealed to their city councillor, Maria Augimeri, but she told them that her ability to change things was severely limited because both Sunrise and the TSSA are private companies. “The province privatized community safety by allowing the TSSA to regulate this dangerous industry, and this is the result—a completely negligent act that was directly responsible for lives lost,” Coun. Augimeri said.

This ruling came weeks after a shameful conflict of interest during an elevator workers strike in 2013, in which TSSA let elevators run without routine maintenance for months while the elevator workers were on strike, claiming they wanted to “minimize impact on the public.” Kevin Lavallee, former CEO of ThyssenKrupp, also sat on the TSSA board at the time while he was one of the main negotiators for the bosses in this strike of almost 1,400 workers in Ontario. “It’s not surprising that the TSSA took this irresponsible position because declaring elevators in the province unsafe would have essentially undercut Lavallee’s own bargaining position,” said Sid Ryan, then president of the Ontario Federation of Labour at the time of the strike.

It is overwhelmingly evident that when the TSSA was privatized, it led to a degradation of working conditions for those engaged in safety inspection services and the endangerment of the public. As long as the TSSA is funded and controlled by the industries it is supposed to regulate, they will continue to sacrifice the safety of all people and the conditions of their own workers for the benefit of the bosses. Self-regulation is inadequate at best, and extremely dangerous at worst. The oversight and public accountability needed to ensure that preventable tragedies like the 2008 Sunrise explosion will never happen again can only happen under democratic workers’ control and public ownership.

Bolster the picket lines and begin a campaign to nationalize the TSSA!

Between the 89 per cent strike vote and the mood on the picket lines, it’s clear that the workers are ready to fight to the end for public safety and fair wages. Instead of conceding while the TSSA continues its scandalous union-busting tactics, OPSEU needs to ramp up pressure on its demands, and not leave out any demands like travel pay insisted on by the members themselves. Weakness invites aggression, and removing critical demands for workers only strengthens the resolve of the TSSA to take away more from them.

Currently, TSSA supervisors are acting as scabs and workers even saw a scab from a different union crossing their picket line. Scabbing takes food off the table from the workers’ families and must be denounced by the entire labour movement. The failure to do so enables the scabbing to continue. A healthy response to scabbing is to form hard pickets and stop them from crossing the picket lines. This also strengthens the strike and hence the bargaining position as the TSSA would be under massive pressure to concede to demands. All unions and workers’ organizations should mobilize their membership to bolster the picket lines and commit to never cross them under any circumstance. It’s only through collective action across the entire labour movement that workers can win this strike.

By using militant tactics to fight and win demands for safety inspectors, the large organizations of the labour movement like OPSEU, the Ontario Federation of Labour, and the Canadian Labour Congress—which represent several million workers—must politicize this fight for public ownership of public safety inspection. A campaign to nationalize the TSSA under democratic workers’ control would be the first step in genuinely solving the problems these safety inspectors face and would improve public safety. The TSSA has clearly shown their primary interest is profits for the bosses over their own workers’ lives and the safety of the public. 

These 170 safety inspectors are the ones that have the skills when it comes to the practical assessment of tens of thousands of devices. They are the ones who ensure boilers and pressure vessels are operating to standard to keep our schools and hospitals safe. They are the ones that support engineers to keep our factories and transportation system fueled and operating. What do the executives and owners of the companies like TSSA do? They sit around and decide how much to squeeze these workers and risk the safety of all of us. It’s time the labour movement fights for the nationalization of the TSSA and to ensure the needs of these workers and the safety of the public come ahead of the interests of the bosses.