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Politics

Prison guards launch campaign against Conservatives in John Baird’s riding

ABOVE: Hear from the head of the Union of Correctional Officers on why they won’t be supporting Stephen Harper in the next election

OTTAWA – Canada’s prison guards have launched their campaign to oust the law-and-order Conservative government in 2015.

About 200 correctional officers planned to door-knock in Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird’s Ottawa West-Nepean riding on Tuesday, the union’s national president said.

“We have to actively work to rid the Conservatives from power,” Kevin Grabowsky said.

Grabowsky said the Union of Correctional Officers, which represents about 7,500 federal prison workers across Canada, will join forces with about 325,000 other unionized workers to urge voters to vote Liberal or NDP in the 2015 election.

“This is the first of several campaigns we will be conducting over the coming year.”

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He said the union chose Baird’s riding first because they are in Ottawa for a meeting this week.

“We think it’s a good start, he’s a prominent minister, he’s in the inner of Mr. Harper’s crew, and sometimes you’ve got to rattle the chain,” he said.

Grabowsky said the Conservatives are at “war with unionized workers in Canada,” and changes made to Canada’s Labour Code make their jobs much less safe.

READ MORE: ‘These guys have to get out’: Prison guards union to campaign against Conservatives

He said the changes weaken guards’ ability to refuse dangerous work.

Over the past several decades, Grabowsky said, unions have fought for health care, 40-hour work weeks, minimum wage and time off on holidays and weekends, among other things.

“It’s no secret that many of our members and members of other unions once supported the Conservative party, but now [325,000 union members] are pooling resources to ensure our members and all Canadians know the dangers of keeping the Conservatives in power.”

Since the Conservatives were elected in 2006, prison guards’ say their relationship with government has deteriorated. The Tories have passed a slew of “tough-on-crime” legislation that’s put more people behind bars, for longer. Statistics show that Canada’s federal prison population has risen even as the crime rate drops – although the number of inmates has not increased at the rate once predicted.

“They don’t want to consult us, they make a lot of changes, the double-bunking – they don’t think it affects our lives,” Grabowsky said.

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“They’re the majority government and they’re making all the decisions and not talking to anybody [about] how or who it affects.”

He added that overcrowding and a lack of programming in prisons make Canada less safe. The vast majority of inmates eventually returned to the community – rehabilitated or not.

“Not to say that we actually put out a product, but what kind of a product are we going to be putting out, when inmates aren’t getting access to a lot of stuff that they once got? That affects Canadians,” he said.

A spokesman for Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney said in an email that the government’s priority is keeping convicted criminals behind bars.

“We are focused on keeping the public safe, not making union bosses happy,” spokesman Jason Tamming wrote.

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Blaney’s spokesman previously told Global News that there is “no link” between double-bunking and violence in prisons, even though the department’s own data shows “crowding affects the level of stress experienced by the offender.”

In response, Grabowsky said the government has been trying to “demonize us [as] big union bosses.”

“I’ve got 35 years as a correctional officer,” he said.

“If the government doesn’t want to talk to us or engage us, maybe we got to go talk to the people that put them in government – let them know our concerns.”

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NDP public safety critic Randall Garrison said it’s a problem when correctional officers haven’t been consulted on changes to their jobs, which includes taking away sick days.

“I think that’s what’s driven them over the edge into political action,” Garrison said in an interview.

“Given the government’s attempt to use their law-and-order agenda to build support among their base, it’s going to cause some trouble when people say, here’s frontline officers saying, ‘Hey, you’re not paying attention to safety in the workplace.’”

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