THUNDER BAY - Upon walking into the Port Arthur Health Centre, National Unifor president, Jerry Dias, described what he saw as shameful and disgusting.
“They have kids working here if you can imagine,” Dias said to Unifor members who followed him inside. “There are confidential medical files all over the place and you have teenagers working here. What kind of doctor would have their kid acting as a scab over the summer?”
Dias was greeted with chants of ‘shame on the scabs’ and ‘do no harm’ by Unifor Local 229 members before leaving the clinic without incident after the Thunder Bay Police were called.
The impromptu march inside the Port Arthur Health Centre was part of a larger solidarity rally on Monday in support of 65 staff members working as appointment secretaries, medical aids, and medical records personnel who have been walking the picket line since Apr. 9.
“This is a classic example of the needy and the greedy,” Dias said. “You have doctors making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year and paying their employees, some of them over 30 years, $14 an hour. This is absolutely disgusting. There’s no rhyme or reason for it.”
The workers, all women, are also calling for more stable working hours, more health benefits for all workers, and recognizing workers who work full-time hours as full-time employees rather than casual.
“These are incredibly, deeply principled women who know they got the short end of the economic stick here,” Dias said. “People are frustrated for sure. But people are also determined. The workers are saying this is about fairness.”
Lori Salmi, union chair at the Port Arthur Health Centre, said it is very important for the national Unifor president to come and support the striking workers in Thunder Bay, because not only does it show how much support they have, it also helps raise moral on the picket line.
“The women here are sticking to their guns,” she said. “They feel that they have to step up.”
Salmi said since the strike started back in April, the doctors have refused to meet with the workers, despite being approached several times by the union.
“July 17 will be day 100 on the line if nothing comes to fruition and it’s a long time to be on the line and a long time for the doctors to keep us out here,” Salmi continued.
But the impact of the strike goes beyond the workers on the picket line, Salmi said, it also affects the people of Thunder Bay. There are concerns that replacement workers at the clinic may not be qualified to properly undertake the duties of the striking staff, such as sterilizing equipment and handling confidential medical records.
“The scabs they have working there are friends and family, so obviously they do need workers in there right? So why don’t they have the right workers in there?” Salmi said.
“There has to be respect for the patients, but there has to be respect for the workers who do this incredible work every day,” Dias added. “This is going to start to come to a head and come to a head in a major way because leaving these women out on the picket line for much longer doesn’t make any sense.”
Several rallies and marches have been held in support of the workers since the strike first started, and local business owner, Lori Paras, organized another demonstration for Monday called the Longest Picket Line.
“When they didn’t come to the table after the walk, we said we would knock on the door a little bit louder, so here we are,” she said. “It’s just unconscionable that somebody won’t sit down at the table and take a meeting and deal with their employees fairly.”
The Longest Picket Line saw more than 150 union members and supporters marching in a continuous line outside the clinic.
“I think everything has got their attention, but I think they want to bust this union, that’s my personal opinion,” Paras said. “It’s the opinion of other people, but they are not going to bust this union on my watch.”
But Dias said it is time to put even more pressure on the doctors and he hopes the more than 6,000 Unifor members locally will help escalate the demonstrations in support of the striking clinic workers.
“We are not going to leave these women isolated on the picket line without the type of help that they deserve,” he said. “If we have 6,000 members in Thunder Bay, then we are going to have to bring a heck a lot of them here to show the doctors that we mean business and we are sick and tired of them exploiting their own employees. They should be ashamed of themselves.”
Port Arthur Health Centre management have yet to respond to requests for comment.