Unions unite against workplace violence

With rising workplace violence in Ontario, the Sault Ste. Marie District Labour Council (SSMDLC) and its affiliates held a public meeting Sunday afternoon, calling for changes to the Health and Safety Act.

Speakers at the event, held at the Queen of Hearts Club, included Mike DaPrat, President of USW 2251, Kari Cusack, Regional Rep of the Workers Health and Safety Centre, and Shelly Predum, President of the Algoma Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario and Michele McCleave-Kennedy, President of the SSMDLC.

The meeting began with a moment of silence for the 1,000 workers across Canada who lost their lives while on the job last year. Another 300,000 workers suffered injuries, and Michele McCleave-Kennedy says the number is actually higher because many incidents go unreported. There’s talk, she says, that some workplaces offer incentives to employees not to report a violent incident.

“The number one issue that we’re dealing with is the Health and Safety Act has not been changed since 1978. We’re still fighting to have workers kept safe,” says McCleave-Kennedy.

Any job that has public-facing workers is the most injured group in the province right now,” says McCleave-Kennedy.

Ten years ago, she says, most workers injured at work were police, jail guards and firefighters. Now, healthcare and education workers, retail workers, liquor store employees and postal workers collectively top the list of workers subject to violent attacks.

The pandemic is routinely identified as a prime cause of the increase in workplace violence, but McCleave-Kennedy says the provincial funding is lagging.

“The issue goes further back than Covid,” says McCleave-Kennedy. “Over the last 10 years, there’s been a lot more assaults on public-facing unions. It’s because we’re seeing funding go down and services decrease.

If the services aren’t there for children, then they don’t learn how to self regulate. Then they get older and attack people at worksites and then they get older still, and they’re attacking people in seniors’ homes.”

Teachers and school staff have become a prime target of violence in the education system. Seventy-seven per cent of Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) members were either targets or witnesses to violence at while at work. Forty-two per cent suffered personal injury, illness or psychological injury and illness at school the past year.

McCleave-Kennedy can’t believe what she is seeing and experiencing on the job  nowadays.

“On TikTok, there’s challenges between kids, like ‘go slap a teacher.’ So we’re seeing students come to school, slap a teacher, and record it. We never saw that before. 

I don’t know if it’s because there’s so much out there now social media-wise or just that our society has shifted so much that people feel there’s no consequences for their actions.”

McCleave-Kennedy says under-reporting of claims and the under-reporting of incidents is another problem.

Following public addresses, attendees took part in a workshop where they shared information and “best practices.”

In 2017, women won the right to their own protective equipment in the workplace, after decades where personal protective gear was washed and shared with men. McCleave-Kennedy recalls working in a jail with a jacket more suitable for a large man and having to roll up the sleeves.

Larger wins came when unions successfully fought Queen’s Park over Bill 124 and Bill 115. 

The rise in workplace violence is bringing unions together for a new fight.

“Out of what we’re doing now, our hope is to show workers that we can have a collective voice and push for safety for everyone,” says McCleave-Kennedy. We’ve seen the violence escalate in the public sector. The goal going forward is to keep all workers safe, unionized, or non-unionized. Collectively, we can come together to keep all workers safe. People need to say ‘hell no, we’re not putting up with this.”

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