Provincial government policy limits what the Northern Ontario School of Medicine can offer at the negotiation table, the school’s dean said Monday.
In its 2010 budget Ontario implemented a policy statement that said it would honour current collective agreements for public service workers, but asked that new collective agreements be at least two years in length and contain zero net compensation increases.
The government said it drafted the policy to help it deal with fiscal challenges during tough economic times, but has drawn strong criticism from some labour organizations and unions.
"This is certainly a complicating factor in negotiating what is a first collective agreement with this group of employees," NOSM dean Roger Strasser said Monday.
NOSM isn’t sure what would happen if the bargaining unit decided to go against the provincial policy, but does believe there would be fiscal consequences that could hurt the school.
"I’m not sure they are completely clear," Strasser said of the ramifications for negotiation against the province’s policy statement. "But the general indication is that the support that we now have from the government, in particular funding increases, would not be coming forward to any sector that doesn’t follow this policy."
NOSM administrative employees hit the picket lines more than a week ago after talks between their employer and the Ontario Public Service Employees Union that represents them broke down Monday, Aug. 16.
Since then 150 staff members from the Lakehead Univeristy campus and the Laurentian University campus in Sudbury have been on strike.
OPSEU Local 677 members voted 97 per cent in favour of providing their union with a strike mandate, which was followed by 34 days of negotiations. Some of the unresolved issues left on the bargaining table include overtime, sick leaves, family leaves and wages.
NOSM officials have said they are committed to maintaining a competitive compensation program to retain and attract staff. Strasser said NOSM can continue to honour that pledge while complying with the province’s wage policy.
"We have to remember that compensation is more than just money," he said. "If you go to the Northern Ontario School of Medicine website you will see a series of questions and answers that outline the competitive benefits and other terms and conditions of employment that the school offers.
"The school certainly has been respectful and has recognized the value of these employees over the year and there have been pay increases on a regular basis."
Smokey Thomas, president of OPSEU, said he isn’t a fan of the province’s policy statement and doesn’t believe that universities should be captured within it. Other unions, including university and college faculty unions, agree.
Thomas appeared at the local picket line just off of Lakehead University property in Thunder Bay Monday afternoon. He arrived after visiting with striking workers at the Sudbury campus.
Before the picket line visits the union president said he had a chance to meet with provincial officials, but could not get a straight answer regarding the budget policy statement.
"This is no different than the eco-fee fiasco, they just really and truly don’t know what they are doing," Thomas said.
As for NOSM, Thomas accuses the employer of forcing a strike by putting an offer on the table that they know will not be accepted by the union’s members.
"You shouldn’t go into a first contract negotiation and go backwards in so many areas," he said. "There’s so many outstanding issues on the table and the employer needs to come back to the t able with some realistic proposals."