THUNDER BAY – Paramedics with Ontario’s air ambulance service, Ornge, have provided a resounding strike mandate ahead of upcoming collective bargaining with the province.
Ornge paramedics voted 94 per cent to strike if necessary on Friday, Unifor national president Jerry Dias announced at a virtual press conference Sunday.
The negotiations will include a face-off with the Ford government over its legislation capping public sector wage increases at one per cent per year. Unifor will seek an exemption to the cap, which the Ford government introduced in 2019 through Bill 124, Dias said.
“I think about Doug Ford going to the Ornge headquarters and calling our members heroes, talking about how they risk their lives each and every day making sure we’re staying safe,” he said. “Yet he introduces outrageous legislation that caps their wage increases at one per cent.”
A strike won't impact the level of care offered to patients, said Keith Simons, an Ornge paramedic based out of Thunder Bay and northern bargaining representative with Unifor Local 2002.
“We’re not going to decrease services,” he said. “All vehicles will be staffed, all vehicles will go – we won’t be decreasing our call levels [or] the calls we service.”
A strike would more likely impact operations behind the scenes such as preparing vehicles, equipment, and supplies, he said, and could slow training programs.
The two parties will immediately enter bargaining and create an essential services protocol in case of a strike, Dias said, a process he expected to be complete within weeks.
The union will then establish a strike deadline, though the Unifor president said a strike would come only as a last resort.
Simons said the province's attempt to cap wages at one per cent was unacceptable, though “not the foremost” issue for the paramedics, who have been without a contract since July of 2020,
The cap would hold increases below the normal rate of inflation, Dias said Sunday. He argued it also puts Ornge paramedics in an unfair position compared to their land ambulance counterparts, who are not subject to the legislation as they're not provincial employees.
Local paramedics with Superior North EMS were offered increases averaging more than two per cent a year in a recently inked contract with the City of Thunder Bay, Dias pointed out.
That kind of increase is “not out of line with what we expect” for Ornge paramedics, Dias said.
“With the other [paramedic] services freely able to bargain and increase wages to keep up with standard of living, the biggest thing for us is that we didn’t want to see Ornge slip behind the highest-paid paramedics in Ontario," said Simons. "We still want to be able to entice land paramedics to come and work for us.”
The need for greater mental health and PTSD coverage will also be an key issue in the new contract, said Simons – particularly with the increased demands of the pandemic, which union leaders said Sunday would have long-lasting psychological impacts for frontline health workers.