Should EMS be essential in Toronto

Should ambulance workers be allowed to strike?
City hall debates making EMS a full essential service
By Kris Scheuer
(Written Sept. 14 for Town Crier)

During the summer’s city strike many Torontonians were surprised to discover that EMS is not considered a full-fledged essential service.
Ambulances were still on the road, but 25 percent of frontline Emergency Medical Services workers were on the picket lines. 
Midtown councillor Michael Walker had a motion at the city’s Executive Committee asking the province to declare all of EMS an essential service. 
“It should be 100 percent not 75 percent,” Walker said. “The bottom line is these services will not be withdrawn from the public (in a strike).” 
Roberta Scott, public relations director for the Toronto Paramedics Association, agrees. 
“Either paramedics are a true essential service or they are not,” Scott told the committee. “On a daily basis we see there are not enough paramedics. 
“And then if you put us in a strike situation and take away 25 percent of us then it delays response time,” the former paramedic added. “That is a disaster waiting to happen.”

A major part of the heated debate focused on consequences of declaring EMS essential. It would mean taking away these workers’ right to strike and put contract disputes in the hands of provincial arbitrators. 
In the cases of police and fire, which are essential services, arbitrators have been awarding contracts costing the city more in wages and benefits to compensate for taking away the right to strike, politicians said during the debate. 
St. Paul’s councillor Joe Mihevc said in the past these workers were ambulance drivers but not medically trained professionals in the way they are today. So they were not declared fully essential.
“That has changed by leaps and bounds. They are essentially an emergency ward on the road,” Mihevc said.
People may feel EMS is essential in their daily lives, but politicians have a further responsibility to look beyond public perception, says Don Valley East councillor Shelley Carroll.
“Perhaps some change is needed,” Carroll said. “We can be as dramatic as we like in our speeches but we are now responsible for (the consequences).”
A favourable contract in one city can often set a precedent for unions wanting the same treatment for workers in their town, she said. 
Carroll and the executive committee voted to have the mayor meet with officials in other municipalities to get their take on declaring EMS essential. 
Mayor David Miller said new contracts are a slippery slope for the city, especially since arbitrated police and fire settlements get more expensive over time.
“Mayors and regional chairs are concerned about that and I will be speaking with my colleagues over the next few months,” Miller said. “The collective agreements don’t expire for another two and half years.
“No one wants a strike,” he added. “But arbitration doesn’t work very well for employers either.”  
Walker disagreed. 
“Consulting the world that is really what that says. Are we negotiating because it will cost more money? Or are we negotiating for public health? We should be negotiating for the health of the public,” he said.
While CUPE Local 416 president Mark Ferguson is opposed to Walker’s motion both the Toronto and Ontario Paramedics Associations are asking EMS to be declared essential.


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