A nugget of Big Medicine for your consideration. #88 The union we deserve
I’m not a union guy but I once started a wildcat strike.
Mike ‘Elwood’ Crowley and I reported for work about 45 minutes early, as per usual, at the Western Sector garage of Urgences Sante (Montreal EMS). We liked to get in early, ensure that everything was hunky dory on our rig and then hit the streets ready to roll.
Our regular rig was nowhere to be found. Instead, there were these beat-up sub-standard ambulances that had been absorbed into the fleet after the latest private ambulance company gave up the ghost. They were rolling relics that had no place in our garage. We asked for our usual ride. The shift supervisor told us to stop whining and get our gear and our asses onto one of those trucks.
I’m not quite sure what happened in my head at that moment but I turned to Elwood and said, “No way. Let’s invoke our right of refusal.” And we did. Our collective agreement and labour laws in Quebec allow for a worker to invoke his/her right of refusal if he/she believes the situation is unsafe and/or there is an unwarranted risk to life and limb.
We sat down.
The other medics looked at us in disbelief. Elwood and I were probably the two paramedics voted least likely to ever initiate a labour action in Montreal EMS history.
The supervisor demanded that we get up and get on the road. We refused. We stayed glued to our chairs.
The other medics sat down. While many were not friends – we had all been thrown together as the organization took its first chaotic steps – they all understood the importance of the moment. Either we sat tall for ourselves or took to the road in ambulances no longer fit for duty.
Mike and I both knew what it meant to ride with luck as your co-pilot and neither one of us wanted to take a step back to the times when we had watched as our back wheels had detached and rocketed past us as we were braking or tried to combat an electrical fire in an overhead panel while simultaneously driving as your partner performed CPR in the back of the rig.
It got pretty surreal very quickly. A work stoppage doesn’t become a work stoppage until the rigs returning from the last shift are due to be replaced by the next shift. Evening rush hour is not a good time to suddenly run out of EMS crews. The seriousness of the situation became clearer as the usual sounds of shift change were replaced by the quiet scraping of chairs being pulled up and nervous words exchanged in whispered tones.
Our union rep was freaking out. Union organizers were mainly francophone. It seemed impossible, it had to be unprecedented. Two Anglo medics had initiated a wildcat strike and the other medics were following suite. He called his way up the union ladder until he was talking with Mario Cotton. Mario was the fiery leader of the union.
We could hear his side of the conversation through the earpiece of the phone and clear across the garage.
“They’re doing what?! Tabarnak – that’s not possible! Are you sure? Newman and Crowley?! Incredible!”
Our union rep asked for guidance. “Support them, dammit. Support them,” was the reply. “No one rolls until they get their regular rigs.”
I’d have loved to have been in that room when Mario Cotton got off the call and tried to explain what was going on to his union colleagues.
We got our rigs back. We hit the streets. The wildcat strike ended without any collateral damage.
I’m still not a union guy. Probably because as a paramedic I have never felt as if my interests were truly represented by any union leadership. I remain forever hopeful.
Be well. Practice big medicine.