April 7, 2020

Defending the Working Conditions of Essential Workers

Quebec Public Sector Workers Oppose
Ministerial Use of Emergency Powers to
Arbitrarily Set Working Conditions

Interview, Jeff Begley, President, Federation of Health and Social Services (FSSS-CSN)
Montreal Postal Workers Organize Procession in Support of Frontline Hospital Workers - Interview, Guillaume Brodeur, Montreal Local, Canadian
Union of Postal Workers

Defending the Working Conditions of Essential Workers

Quebec Public Sector Workers Oppose
Ministerial Use of Emergency Powers to
Arbitrarily Set Working Conditions

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, a state of public health emergency was declared by the Government of Quebec on March 13. In quick succession, on March 15 and 21, Quebec health care workers, who are on the front lines of taking care of the people and curbing the pandemic, learned through ministerial orders 2020-04 and 2020-07 that entire portions of their working conditions, that have been negotiated and are part of their collective agreements, were suspended. This suspension is being justified under powers claimed by the Minister of Health under section 123 of the Public Health Act.

Section 123 of the Public Health Act says that the government or the Minister, during a public health emergency, may order any measure necessary to protect the health of the public. Nowhere in the measures specified in section 123 is there any reference to the suspension of collective agreements or the unilateral modification of working conditions for health sector employees. No discussion on why the government thinks such actions assist in addressing the current crisis has taken place with health care workers. No explanation has been provided as to how this protects the health of the public. This is an arbitrary exercise of powers that the government and the Minister have given themselves under the hoax of taking emergency measures during conditions of the pandemic.

Among other measures decreed by ministerial orders, the government (the employer) can "cancel union leaves already granted or refuse to grant new ones." It can also cancel any leave or suspend any leave already in progress.

The employer may now "assign employees to the place, time or duties of another job title, [...] to the extent that the concerned employee meets the normal requirements of the job, without regard to the notion of position, activity centre, service, shift or any other provision limiting the mobility of employees."

A worker on disability may be required to return to work "for the purpose of performing certain duties consistent with his or her residual abilities, with the recommendation of the employer's designated physician."

The government can also impose work days of up to 12 hours, and "suspend or cancel agreed working time arrangements and refuse to grant new arrangements."

Employers can now hire additional staff without having to take into account "the rates and scales of pay in the health and social services network."

Quebec nurses protest mandatory overtime, April 2019. (FIQ)

For three decades, health care workers have been holding the system together against its wrecking by the anti-social neo-liberal agenda imposed by successive governments in Quebec. For three decades they have been blackmailed that if they do not overwork in understaffed conditions and if they do not perform miracles to look after patients with not enough beds, corridor medicine, irrational management practices, the constant fight against plans to privatize the cleaning and laundry services and so on ad infinitum, they will be responsible for abandoning the patients. Now they are supposed to cave to these decrees because the pandemic needs the peoples looked after. It is blackmail pure and simple. These measures are an insult to their intelligence because it is not the health care workers who have abandoned the people. It is governments and their anti-social pay-the-rich agenda which has cut back and wrecked the modern facilities and access in Quebec, as is the case across the country. Once again, the government is insulting the intelligence of the health care workers who at all times uphold their professional ethics.

"For many years, nurses, nursing assistants, respiratory therapists, and clinical perfusionists have been working in unacceptable conditions," said the Interprofessional Health Care Federation of Quebec (FIQ) which represents nearly 76,000 health care workers. "This possibility to loosen and change the rules will have the effect of demobilizing FIQ members who cannot take it any more. They need recognition, not another lash. We expect Minister McCann to address our members publicly to assure them that they will not be exploited any further!"

The Federation of Health and Social Services (FSSS-CSN), which represents 110,000 members in the health and social services sector, highlighted the sector's experience with the so-called exceptional measures that are becoming the norm.

"Rather than sending a signal that local parties must respect public health guidelines and that they must work together to deal with the crisis, the government is giving itself the means to completely disrupt working conditions. We understand that the government must give itself the means to deal with the crisis, but it must use them exceptionally and not as a way to manage the network. We already know that when exceptional measures such as mandatory overtime become a management tool, it poses a serious problem for staff.

"Since the beginning of this crisis, we have been working to help the network get through the pandemic. In the last few days, we have been addressing the Ministry to voice our concerns. We must avoid at all costs a drift toward authoritarianism in the network. We are calling for dialogue in the institutions. Management must avoid a blanket application of this order. The local unions are well placed to propose solutions to improve things in the face of this crisis and we must be brought into the picture."

The Health Care Federation of Quebec (FSQ-CSQ), with more than 7,000 members working in the sector, also maintains that health care workers cannot be excluded from decisions that affect them as front-line workers if the crisis is to be resolved. It says:

"Since the beginning of the crisis, Premier François Legault, and the Minister of Health and Social Services Danielle McCann have been saying everywhere that we must take care of health care workers, our guardian angels [the expression being used by Quebec Premier during the pandemic when talking about workers in health care and social services -- ed. note]. And this is now reflected in the suspension of all clauses that guaranteed us a minimum of decency in our working conditions. This government has a strange way of taking care of us.

"They are more than guardian angels -- they are health care professions."

"[...] these women and men who have had to fight on the front lines since the beginning of the crisis, despite the risks to their own health, are now being thanked by having 12-hour shifts imposed, unlimited flexibility, the abolition of all leave and holidays, and the loss of wages.

"Finally, it must be noted that despite its talk of guardian angels, the Legault government is treating us with the same lack of recognition as was the case before the crisis. Fortunately, despite this, I want to assure the public that they can always count on the professionalism and unwavering commitment of health care personnel and I call upon the government to discuss respectful work arrangements for personnel."

The working conditions of health care workers are the living conditions of the population. Let the health care workers set their own working conditions. They are quite capable of staffing according to the needs of each situation and circumstance. The duty of the government is to give them what they need and they say they need. No to exceptional measures! No to ministerial police dictate!

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Interview, Jeff Begley, President, Federation of Health and Social Services (FSSS-CSN)

Health and social service workers are highly critical of the actions and inaction of the Quebec government and the Minister of Health in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, they criticize the measures taken in the April 4 ministerial order, particularly on the issue of bonuses granted to workers in the sector. Here is an interview conducted on April 6 by Workers' Forum with Jeff Begley, the President of the Federation of Health and Social Services (FSSS-CSN) in which he gives us the federation's point of view on these issues.

Workers' Forum: According to the FSSS-CSN, the ministerial order of April 4 does not meet the expectations of health and social services workers. Can you tell us more?

Jeff Begley: It doesn't meet our expectations, first of all with regard to premiums. All employees in the health and social services network receive a four per cent bonus, and people in units where COVID-19 is present receive eight per cent. We do not agree with this two-tier approach. It is all employees in the health and social services network who are under constant pressure during this crisis, in all job titles. The premium should be the same for everyone. In our opinion, premiums are an important gesture to show that we recognize that workers are on the front lines and that they are doing their duty with brilliance. That is not going to get us through this crisis together, but it is an important gesture of recognition.

We also do not agree that the bonus should be a percentage. We demanded a $3 per hour bonus for everyone. If we take the highest paid network staff, an 8 per cent bonus will represent about $4.50 an hour. For the lowest paid, such as maintenance workers and orderlies, it will be about $1.60 an hour. Yet they work in the same room, they work together, the risk is the same for both. In our opinion, it would be better to give a premium that is a fixed amount, but the government has decided otherwise.

The other major problem, which is paramount, is that of protective equipment. We recognize that the entire network had to be reorganized in a matter of days. It was a colossal task. Clearly, we were not prepared for a crisis like that, as we should have been. We have to learn lessons for the future. In the emergencies, in the units reserved for COVID-19, we now have the equipment we need. The problem was in the long-term care centres (CHSLDs) -- we were not ready at all. Even today, there are still centres where we do not yet have all the necessary equipment. Because of this, some staff members have contracted the virus and given it to their families, other staff members and vulnerable seniors. There is some catch-up being done at the moment, but in the past few weeks it has been a serious problem.

WF: The FSSS has presented five main demands to the government. Have these demands been met?

JB: As we speak, not at all. There hasn't been any listening so far. Our five demands are: that work uniforms be provided and maintained; a limitation on moving workers between sites; maintaining the whole compensation regime when workers are moved; maintaining compensation in situations of isolation; establishment of a safe transportation system to limit the spread of the virus.

For example, many low-wage earners cannot afford to pay parking fees at the facilities. They take public transit or carpool. We have asked that in this time of pandemic, when keeping distances between people is more important than ever, parking fees be eliminated for the period of the health emergency. There are institutions that have done this on their own initiative. We have asked that the government enact it everywhere. It did not agree. Also, not all employees have cars. We have asked that employers contract with taxi companies so that at shift changes, taxis will bring and take employees home at the employers' expense. This was not accepted.

We have to make sure that people who are in isolation are paid as if they were at work. This measure exists, but it is not the same everywhere, it is not applied everywhere. The government has not given the instruction to the whole system. It has to.

We are also asking that during this social emergency, since we have laundry facilities everywhere that have a fairly large capacity, that people be allowed to leave their uniforms at work when they finish their shift. They would be washed and maintained according to the rules of the trade. This is a safety measure to prevent employees from taking the virus home in case they contract it. The department says it will do this when possible, but we are asking that the directive be given for the entire network.

There is an improvement with respect to limiting moving workers from one site to another. This is particularly important for the long-term care centres because seniors are very vulnerable. Measures to limit travel between sites must include everyone, including part-timers, casuals and people on recall lists.

Faced with all these demands, nothing has been accepted. The government is not saying that it is refusing. It is saying that it is going to let the employers manage the measures. We want the government to enact these measures for the entire network.

The most important thing in all of this is health and safety. Because our members are on the front lines, they are disproportionately infected with the virus in relation to the population as a whole. We are calling for an increase in testing for the disease throughout the network.

In conclusion, I would like to express my deepest admiration for all the staff of the network. The employees consider it their mission to protect the population, but for this to be possible, working conditions must exist at the required level.

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Montreal Postal Workers Organize Procession in Support of Frontline Hospital Workers

On April 3, about 100 members of the Montreal Local of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) organized a procession of postal vehicles in front of the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal to express their social solidarity with hospital workers who are on the front lines of the struggle to care for the population and defeat the COVID-19 pandemic. The day after the action, Workers' Forum spoke with Guillaume Brodeur who is a shop steward at the Chabanel plant, which has this hospital on its territory. Guillaume was one of the main organizers of this action. See a video from the action below.

Workers' Forum: What was the purpose of organizing the postal vehicle procession?

Guillaume Brodeur: It's an idea that germinated at the beginning of the week, to go and show our support to the health care personnel who are mobilized in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. We, as postal workers, come across people who thank us for being there for them, for being on the front line. We discussed it and thought that being thanked like that is rewarding, but we wanted to do something ourselves to thank those who are on the front lines in caring for the people, the citizens, our families, the people around us. We wanted to go ourselves to bring this appreciation that the population gives us, directly to the hospital staff. In the case of yesterday's action, it was in front of the Jewish Hospital of Montreal, which is located near our postal plant and which has a large team that takes care of people with this disease.

We appealed to everyone, to take some time during their work day, on a voluntary basis, to go there in a procession of postal vehicles in front of the hospital, to honk their horns a little, to show our solidarity with the hospital workers.

It was an unbelievable success. There were about 100 postal vehicles, each worker in his or her vehicle, out of the approximately 180 postal vehicles on the road at that time from our plant. We almost surrounded the hospital. Several dozen workers from the hospital came outside to greet us. Also, you could see in the windows on the upper floors people with masks and patients greeting us. The turnout was such that as the first vehicles were leaving, there were some who had not yet arrived in front of the hospital. We made noise. We had some trumpets. We honked our horns. When we passed by the people who had come out of the hospital to greet us, we exchanged good words, they thanked us. The timing was excellent, because we know they're going to have a very difficult time, the worst is yet to come. Giving them a dose of our energy was important.

There were a lot of people that you don't usually see in the actions that were there. People's feeling is that there are things that go beyond our personal dissatisfaction, that are bigger than us. People are coming together based on real values right now. That's something positive that can come out of this pandemic.

WF: Do you want to say something in conclusion?

GB: Our sense of pride is incredible. People have anxiety, many people are afraid, not only for themselves, but for their families, their parents and other people. The sense of pride, the smiles that were on their lips yesterday, it's priceless. The action was a great fraternal outpouring of solidarity. I think we should multiply these kinds of gestures of solidarity among workers, regardless of their sector.

(Photo: Kaye Art. Video: M. Segreto.)

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