When a Strike Becomes a Lock-out, Assault and Vandalism

By Dr. Nadia Alam


It’s evening now. I’m putting my kids to bed, listening to them chatter about their day and thinking about mine in my family medicine clinic.

Shoulder injections.

Admitting rehab patients over lunch.

Discussions on end-of-life care.

Patients visits, from asthma attacks to addiction and assault.

Hard as today was, at least my clinic was not walled off by a metal fence put up by union workers on strike. Doctors from New Brunswick to Alberta have messaged me, alarmed by the events at the Port Arthur Health Centre in Thunder Bay.

On Wednesday, August 8, Unifor, the union representing the health centre’s medical aids, receptionists, billing clerks and assorted office staff locked patients out of a medical health center of 29 family doctors and specialists, lab, pharmacy and diagnostic facilities. The workers on strike advised shocked patients to find another doctor or at least, cancel all of their appointments.

In fact, Unifor put up a metal fence walling off all entry and exit to the health centre. And as the rhetoric heated up, tempers flared, a man trying to cross the picket line was hit in the face and all power to the building was cut because somebody tampered with the electrical box.

Whatever the specifics of the labour dispute, let’s all agree: it is simply not okay to deny patients medically necessary care — not for unions, not for anyone. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened in Thunder Bay.

Activities that put patients at risk cannot be a negotiation tactic.

Unifor’s fence put at risk seniors with diabetes or macular degeneration who needed eye injections at tightly scheduled times to prevent blindness.

Or sick newborns, women with a lump in their breasts, or suicidal teens who must be seen by the family doctors who know them well.

Or patients who waited months for appointments with specialists — some of whom are the only ones of their kind in all of Northwestern Ontario.

Or frail house-bound patients, some of who are palliative, who need their doctors to be able to bring the tools of their trade on a house-call.

Chances are everybody knows somebody on this list.

Cutting power to a medical building goes far beyond ordinary “mischief.” It put at risk all of the refrigeration units in the clinic — including those storing vaccines and medication. And those storing frozen sperm, egg and fertility samples from couples being treated by the only fertility specialist for hundreds of kilometers around.

3 days of denying access to 29 doctors, a lab and diagnostic facility adds up to over a thousand missed appointments. This fence means more waiting for people who can not wait longer, who should not have to wait longer. At a time of ballooning waitlists, of specialists booking months to a year in advance, of a medical system that has no wiggle room, cancelling a patient appointment is a huge deal. It’s not as if you can just rebook the appointment in a week. Waitlists exist because each available appointment is already filled. So which patients will be postponed to make it all fit?

The media has reported a one-sided story about the Unifor strike. I say one-sided because the doctors, up until now, have remained silent. It was only on Tuesday that the clinic doctors reached out to the Ontario Medical Association.

3 days later, despite a court-mandated injunction to take the fence down, that fence is still standing. I am unsure why police did not intervene.

I understand the workers are in a labour dispute with the Port Arthur Health Centre.

I even understand that Unifor President Jerry Dias is trying to look out for his workers.

What I don’t understand is Unifor putting at risk the most vulnerable among us, our senior citizens, our kids, our sick.

Health care is not a game. You simply cannot apply escalating union tactics to health care without risking harm to innocent patients.

A strike? Fine. I respect everyone’s right to protest. But a fence? Assault? Tampering with the electrical box? Unifor crossed the line, stirring people up to such a fever pitch that the week ended in violence and vandalism. And nobody stopped it.

Small towns and small cities thrive because community members look out for one another. I know because I live in one. When no one stops Unifor from denying sick people the medical care they need, what does it mean for the relationships holding that community together? What does it mean for the health of the people who need to be on the other side of that fence?