April 23, 2020

Workers Take Responsibility for
Working Conditions During Pandemic

Upcoming Day of Mourning
and COVID-19

Monopolies and Governments Are Responsible for Devastating COVID-19 Outbreak at Cargill and Other Meat-Packing Plants - Peggy Morton
Interview on the Keystone XL Pipeline - Pipeline Worker André Vachon
Quebec Miners Demand Public Health Guidelines Are Respected as Mining Resumes - Interview, André Racicot, President, USW Local 9291, Abitibi

Workers Take Responsibility for Working Conditions During Pandemic

Upcoming Day of Mourning and COVID -19

As we approach April 28, the National Day of Mourning for workers killed on the job, an even more sombre cloud will hang over us at this year's ceremony as we remember all workers killed in the past year.

ONA monument in Toronto honouring nurses who died treating patients during  the SARS outbreak in 2003.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, added to this year's list will be the frontline workers who have put their lives on the line to make sure society does not come to a complete standstill. While doctors, nurses, EMS workers, firefighters and police are who we think of as the first line of defence, bus drivers, taxi drivers, truck drivers, personal support workers, social workers and people who work with the homeless are all potential victims to the COVID-19 virus. Even our grocery store workers or the person giving you your morning cup of coffee are also at risk of contracting the virus. There are many other unsung heroes too numerous to mention but they will not be forgotten as we gather on April 28 to remember those who have fallen during this time of crisis.

We have heard our politicians tell us that we are at war with this pandemic yet our frontline soldiers have been inadequately armed to fight this enemy. Many of us stay at home praying it does not visit us or a loved one while some selfishly think it isn't about them. This will be a hard lesson to learn if it does visit someone who didn't take it seriously.

This pandemic has shown many cracks in our infrastructure and how fragile our economic system is. Many of our important publicly-run systems have in the course of their privatization been neglected or deregulated by the profit motive that now drives them, to our own peril.

The underfunding of our health care system has never been more apparent than it is now. A strong health care system that is driven by compassion and not greed or profit should be the goal of all governments as we hopefully get through this pandemic.

Now as we try to home school our children, it dawns on us how important teachers are and the need for a strong public education system. How will having 29 students in a class room look post pandemic? The lack of resources for parents to even begin to implement home schooling has been exposed as well.

The everyday workers who are living in a gig economy, barely able to earn a living wage, are the ones cleaning hospitals or banks. The foreign workers who come to our country to pick our fruit and work the farms that feed us suddenly are important. Yet they are not appreciated enough to be given a living wage. "Profit first, workers second" seems to be the motto of the neo-liberal ideology.

What will happen after we solve this pandemic? Do we return to life as usual and forget about the sacrifices made, as politicians return to their partisan ideologies? We the workers and people of society need to hold these politicians to account and force them to listen to us in this post-pandemic world whenever that day arrives. Unfortunately I feel we will all return to our partisan corners and begin fighting once again as to who has the best ideology and way forward.

We cannot let this happen and all political parties need to rethink society as a whole and not just for the few.

The workers' compensation system should be revamped and made to adhere to it's 100-year-old agreement whereby injured workers gave up their right to sue their employer when injured on the job in exchange for compensation that lasts as long as the injury. I ask what Ontario's Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) has done for injured workers during this pandemic? They certainly made sure employers were taken care of while they ignored our pleas for help.

Many workers will be affected by the COVID-19 and will need to file a claim for compensation because they were exposed. The families of workers killed by the COVID-19 virus should also be compensated and taken care of by our compensation system.

That is why the current WSIB should be renamed the Workers' Compensation Board, a name that reflects its true purpose. As well, it should remain as a publicly run system to insure it fulfills this important mandate of caring for injured workers.

The workers who will have given the ultimate sacrifice should not be forgotten on this National Day of Mourning, April 28, or any worker for that matter, for we are all soldiers of industry and without our labour society will crumble. That has never been more apparent than during this crisis.

Let those in power think about society as a collective and that we are all in it together and, as we come out the other side of this crisis, let us all work towards a society that includes the Rights of All.

(Photos: WF, OFL, ONA)

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Monopolies and Governments Are Responsible
for Devastating COVID-19 Outbreak at
Cargill and Other Meat-Packing Plants

As of April 22, 440 workers at the Cargill meat processing plant in High River, Alberta, south of Calgary, have been found to be infected with COVID-19 and one worker has died. With community spread, including family members, there are now 580 cases linked to the plant. They include cases in long-term care homes where family members of workers at Cargill work. On April 20, Cargill finally announced a temporary closure of the plant. Two thousand people work at the plant. 

Ninety-six COVID-19 cases have also been confirmed at the JBS meat packing plant in Brooks, Alberta. A worker has died at JBS, with the cause of death not yet confirmed. JBS refuses to close the plant despite the demands of the workers and their union. One case at the Harmony beef plant in Balzac, Alberta in March has been resolved. The three plants represent approximately three-quarters of beef suppliers in Canada. Also in Alberta, there are to date 32 confirmed cases directly linked to the Imperial Oil Kearl Lake oil sands project north of Fort McMurray. This is a "fly-in, fly-out" operation where workers come in from many parts of Canada, and cases have now spread to BC, Saskatchewan, and Nova Scotia. In all, one in five cases of COVID-19 in Alberta are linked to outbreaks in these two sectors, with the number expected to grow according to the Chief Medical Officer of Health. 

Workers' Forumexpresses heartfelt condolences to the family, friends and co-workers of the workers who died and to those who are sick. This tragedy did not need to happen. It happened because these gigantic global monopolies are allowed to do as they please and conduct "business as usual" according to self-serving definitions of health and safety. It happened because the right of the workers to have the final word on safe working conditions during the pandemic was denied, and the proposals of the union ignored. It also happened because many workers are Filipino contract workers who are vulnerable and considered expendable. All of it reveals the inhumanity of those who have usurped the positions of power, how detached they are from the problems of the working people about which they know nothing and reveals the absence of a public authority which will take responsibility, and the unbridled greed of this gigantic global monopoly which does not recognize that workers are human beings but treats them as things.

These sectors have been deemed "essential services" by the Alberta government and on this basis employers have been given license to conduct "business as usual" through self-serving definitions of "what is possible." This shows a broken system in which the state has been restructured so no vestige of a public authority is left.

The growing size of the outbreaks at the High River Cargill plant and Brooks JBS plant and at the Kearl Lake oil sands plant show that the workers and Canadian people cannot trust these gigantic global monopolies with their health and safety. The workers know what is needed and have put forward the required actions, but the human factor/social consciousness has been blocked by the greed and narrow self-interest of the owners.

Proposals to Ensure Safety at Cargill Plant Disregarded

"It's a tragedy. We asked days and days ago for [the Cargill plant] to be closed temporarily for two weeks, send all of the workers home with pay to isolate. That was when we were aware of 38 cases. That was before they set up a dedicated testing facility in the area. We'll never know how much lower that number might've been," United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 401 President Tom Hesse said on April 17.

On March 20, the union called for concrete measures to protect the workers and the right of Canadians to a secure food supply. The union presented a plan to reconfigure the workplace, putting more distance between workers. It proposed extending the work week to allow the line to slow and social distancing and rigorous safety measures to be implemented. The union also called for accommodations for workers at increased risk if they contract COVID-19, for workers impacted by school and daycare closures, voluntary overtime and waiving of sick note requirements.

Cargill did not bother to answer the proposals for social distancing on the work floor. Instead, the company arrogantly declared, "We have made several decisions through the lens of putting people first as we try to minimize the financial hardship our employees are facing." It then called on the union to urge people to come to work. "Minimizing the financial hardship" apparently meant keeping the lines going full speed at all costs.

On April 12, 250 workers signed a letter to the Mayor of High River calling on him to support their call to close the plant for two weeks, CBC reported on April 19. On April 13, UFCW Local 401 President Tom Hesse also publicly demanded a temporary two-week shutdown of the plant to conduct a comprehensive assessment of its safety, with full compensation paid to every worker. The union also demanded "an immediate meeting with Union officials, experts, and government officials of appropriate competency and jurisdiction to design clear and enforceable rules around health and safety in your workplace." At the time Hesse pointed out that 30 members of the UFCW have died across North America and that it is time to act and protect lives.

On April 14, Cargill temporarily eliminated one shift and laid off 1,000 workers, UFCW reported. Several days later, all activity was suspended on the "kill floor" while beef continued to be processed. The plant normally processes about 4,000 head of cattle each day and is one of the two primary beef suppliers for McDonald's Canada.

While the workers and their union have been very active in speaking out about what is required, neither Cargill nor the Alberta government has taken any responsibility for the consequences of their decisions to refuse to accept the informed decisions of the workers as to what was needed. It puts the lie to the claims that "we are all in this together."

All along, Alberta Agriculture Minister Devin Dreeshen has maintained that government agencies had worked to keep essential services open "and to ensure protocols are in place in the event of worker illness" and that he is confident the plant is safe. He repeated the claim that the plant is "safe" in a teleconference with the workers on April 18.

The authorities are now trying to divert from the issues being raised about the working conditions and instead are blaming the workers and their living conditions, suggesting that the spread was not at work but in car pooling and households where it is impossible to self-isolate because of cramped living conditions. This is to suggest that their accommodations have no relation to the low wages of the workers, and to cover up that Cargill is in fact responsible for making housing arrangements for temporary foreign workers who work at Cargill.

The workers and their union have repeatedly exposed this cover-up as false. The conditions in the plant make social distancing impossible as the workers are "elbow to elbow" on the line. Workers told the CBC they have been pressured to return to work after testing positive. As well, Cargill brought in bonuses and hourly wage increases, which workers would be eligible for only if they are present for every shift. Punishing those who become sick with COVID-19 or for complying with isolation measures is beneath contempt.

The system is broken when no one will take responsibility. Both Cargill and the provincial government knew the virus was spreading since early April. The federal government is responsible for inspection of meat packing facilities, and certainly should have mandated inspectors to take action. But no one accepts any responsibility for this situation.

What is being revealed is not only the brutality of these monopolies who have seized control of Canada's food supply, but that neither the government nor the monopolies can be trusted to defend anything but their own self-interest and control of decision-making in the service of the financial oligarchy. The workers have the right to decide whether working conditions are safe and acceptable to them. In defending themselves, the workers have also fought to prevent the spread of COVID for which Cargill and the governments in its service must take full responsibility. The JBS plant must be closed at once, and a full public investigation held at once into the actions and negligence of these monopolies, the Alberta government and Alberta Health Services. The workers must have the final say, and the plants must not be reopened until the workers agree that acceptable conditions are in place.

(With files from CBC, CTV and Global News. Graphics: UCFW )

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Interview on the Keystone XL Pipeline

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney announced on March 30 that "shovels are in the ground" for the Keystone XL pipeline as of 6:00 am that morning. TC Energy (formerly TransCanada Pipelines), Kenney said, had decided to go ahead with the project after the provincial government agreed to buy a $1.5 billion equity stake in the project, as well as to a $6 billion loan guarantee. This decision was made after investors could not be found for such a risky venture.[1] Alberta will sell its stake in the company back to TC Energy if and when oil is flowing. That much is known but the terms and conditions are confidential. Albertans are in the dark about what has been agreed upon, but media reports indicated that the equity stake will cover construction costs for 2020.

Kenney claimed that 520 kilometers of pipeline in two Canadian spreads would be built in 2020, as well as several spreads in the U.S. "For so many of the people who've been laid off in the oil field sector right now, they will have an opportunity to work for TC Energy, its contractors. For the little hotels and at least some of the restaurants that can operate along the route, they will have business..."

Workers' Forum interviewed pipeline worker André Vachon about the announcement.

Workers' Forum: What do you make of Jason Kenney's announcement about construction of the Keystone XL.

André Vachon: Well the idea of "so many people" going to work on a new pipeline in the midst of a pandemic is outrageous, showing so little regard for our health and safety. We are also seeing the consequences of such decisions now at the Cargill meat packing plant, as well as at the Kearl Lake Oil Sands project. It is basically impossible to social distance in pipeline work. The most that could be done is some ground clearing. Then workers will have to find accommodation, either renting rooms in homes or in hotels or motels, again violating social distancing, as well as that workers travel to the site by bus.

But as it turns out, the announcement is just as fraudulent as it is indifferent to our well-being. Pipeliners immediately questioned the claim that construction had begun, as not a single job for the pipeline has been posted anywhere, and no contractors are hiring. What's more, every worker in the oil and gas industry knows that pipeline construction shuts down during spring break-up, when road bans are in effect making it impossible to move heavy equipment. Pipeline construction simply doesn't take place in the spring in Alberta when the ground is still too wet. My union, the Operating Engineers, immediately reported that construction on the Saskatchewan section of the pipeline won't begin until 2021. I understand that a few days after this announcement, Kenney "clarified" that there were about 100 workers doing some preliminary work in Montana. Even that isn't going to happen, as a judge in Montana ruled on April 15 that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers failed to adequately consider effects of the Keystone XL pipeline and its construction on endangered species as it traverses rivers and streams. So TC Energy no longer has a permit to move ahead on Montana.

WF: Kenney has also stated that he is hoping to get the economy moving again by the end of May.

AV: Well that is about when the road ban would be lifted in a normal year. But we are half way through April and there is no spring thaw yet, so it will be much later, and pipeline construction almost never takes place at that time of year anyway, and especially this year when the weather has been so cold. He clearly is pushing for "business as usual" as opposed to putting our health first.

WF: Kenney also stated that he had talked to the Governors of Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska and that they, as well as TC Energy, had assured him that they would be taking all precautions necessary to protect workers and communities.

AV: Well that is pretty ripe, because I know South Dakota and Nebraska were among the last holdouts, they didn't want to shut anything down, just carry on business as usual and take no precautions to protect the people against COVID-19. So to suggest that they are going to look after the workers is a complete fraud. Really what it looks like is that the Alberta government is actually going to pay for TC Energy to build the pipeline through the U.S. this year. Those are the jobs he is talking about, which put the U.S. workers at risk.

WF: TC Energy says there will be 1,400 jobs in Canada to build the pipeline. Can you comment?

AV: That figure sounds realistic. But it is important to know what is meant by a "job." It doesn't mean two years of work. Contractors bid to complete a section of the pipeline, and then we are hired for that job, to complete that section, which usually takes a maximum of three months, during which we work six and sometimes seven days a week, 10 or 11 hours a day. Then comes a long period of unemployment. This bragging up of the benefits of pipeline construction job-wise is always overblown. It is part of the boom and bust cycles that are inherent to our industry. For Kenney to tout pipeline construction jobs as bringing prosperity to Albertans is nonsense. 

Alberta has to stop being dependent on shipping oil to the U.S. to fuel the war economy and war machine. We want to make Canada a zone for peace, so a new direction is needed. Of course no one ever asks us. Why should workers be blackmailed that either we support this direction, which we already know doesn't provide security, or it's nothing, no work? And to top it off billions of dollars is handed over to TC Energy, which even dropped Canada from its name "to reflect the expansion of its business beyond Canada to the United States."

As building trades workers, our skills are not confined to building pipelines. Just imagine the public enterprise which $6.5 billion could generate to provide a new direction for the economy, instead of giving it to a global monopoly for a risky venture. There are alternatives. For example Alberta could invest in a public enterprise to make N95 masks, which are not produced in Canada even though they are made from polypropylene, a petrochemical product. Or the much-needed public lab which the Kenney government cancelled. We could be constructing a publicly-owned enterprise to make vaccines. Public enterprise to manufacture such products would ensure security of supply for Canada and a source of revenue for the public treasury. An urgent need -- perhaps the most urgent -- is modern culturally appropriate housing on the First Nations reserves and Metis settlements, which is appalling in Alberta, as well as in cities for the urban Indigenous population. The $7.5 billion in equity and loan guarantees could go a long way if it is the people of Alberta who decide how to spend it. We could be building those enterprises to benefit Canadians, not a pipeline for the benefit of TC Energy, the U.S. war machine and to destroy the economies of countries who don't submit to the U.S.

WF: Thank you very much.


1. See TML Weekly Supplement, Alberta Government's $7.5 Billion Energy
Pay-the-Rich Scheme, April 18, 2020

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Quebec Miners Demand Public Health Guidelines
Are Respected as Mining Resumes

On April 13, the Government of Quebec announced that mining activities, which have been halted across Quebec since March 25 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, would gradually resume as of April 15. Workers' Forum recently spoke with André Racicot, President of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 9291 about the conditions under which the resumption of activities will take place and the role of workers to ensure that it is done in full respect of workers' health and safety. USW Local 9291 represents, among others, workers at Iamgold's Westwood Mine in Preissac, Abitibi-Témiscamingue. André is a specialist in health and safety issues in the mining sector.

Workers' Forum: How are the preparations going for the resumption of mining operations at the Westwood mine?

André Racicot: With regard to the resumption of work in the mining sector, we have been working hard with the employer to put in place the best health standards for the workers, to ensure that they are protected from becoming infected with the virus. A number of protocols have been put in place regarding cleanup and actions in the workplace, including respecting the two-metre distance between workers. There was a problem that needed to be resolved with regard to the mining cage that carries the workers underground. Separators were put in the cage and the number of people that can be carried at a time is limited. Before, we could put 25 people in the cage, but now we are reducing the number by half. Workers are not allowed to talk in the cage and they have to face the wall, and are separated by curtains. The curtains and the cage are completely disinfected after each shift.

As regards transport vehicles in the mine, they are being cleaned and disinfected regularly and no more than two workers can be transported at a time. The driver is at the wheel and the other worker sits in the back seat on the right side. In the transport vans, the two-metre distance between workers is respected.

For the underground shelters, the dining rooms, for example, have been disinfected and for each meal the cleaning staff has been increased. Meal times are organized so that there are not too many people in the dining rooms at the same time and the two-metre distance is respected. Work schedules have been modified to allow for a gradual entry into the mine, not everyone together. Workers are required to wash their hands for 20 seconds on a regular basis. Public Health guidelines are being followed.

Each department has developed protocols for cases where they are unable to maintain the two-metre distance. For example, in the case of mechanics, when they have a task such as repairing a pump, it takes two workers to do the task. In that case they will have to wear masks to prevent the spread of the virus to their co-workers.

We will have N95 masks and surgical masks. We also have masks that are normally used underground, and these are also effective in preventing the spread of droplets. We have taken inventory at the emergency health committee to ensure that there will not be a shortage of masks.

There is a real change that has been made to ensure that the work schedules and the return to work protocol allow for health standards to be put in place. It has not been easy, but we can see that there is a real willingness on everyone's part to take charge.

WF: Has mining per se resumed?

AR: It is in the process of restarting. The first people who have been recalled are the mechanics at the plant who work on a crusher. As far as I know, there are teams of mobile mechanics who are starting to return to work. The actual mining operations are going to start around April 25, I believe. Each person is going to be called in and they're going to get a health standards briefing, because this represents a 180-degree change. In order to assimilate this information and apply it, everybody's going to have to do their share. To make sure that the mining of the ore is really going to work properly, I think it's going to take until late April or early May.

WF: Will the guidelines you spoke about be the same throughout the mining sector in Quebec?

AR: As far as I know, with the information I have, it seems that these guidelines will apply throughout Quebec. How it works is that the Quebec Mining Association (QMA) gives the guidelines to its members. Generally, members follow these guidelines. There are small variations, but overall these are the guidelines that are followed throughout Quebec.

WF: How do you see the role of workers in this process of resuming operations?

AR: Our role is to ensure that safety and health standards are enforced. We have a role to play in identifying, controlling and eliminating risks. Our role is to prevent the spread of this disease. We don't want any worker to be infected. We don't want the pandemic to enter the company. We care about our families and loved ones, about not infecting them. We believe that not only is it dangerous for members, but it is bad for the industry because Public Health can stop the activity of a mine if the standards are not met. I appreciate the company's willingness to put guidelines in place that are good, but it remains to be seen how that will be applied in the field. That is what it all comes down to. We're going to focus all our efforts on monitoring and identifying problems. We have to make sure that the guidelines are respected. There may be all sorts of reasons that they are not respected -- there may be administrative pressures, or there may be a problem adapting to change, or instructions that are not being followed, so we will keep an eye on everything.

We are putting our union structure into action. As far as I'm concerned, I'm assigned to tele-work and there are union officers who work at the mine to report on the application of safety and health standards. I dispatch the prevention representative to check how things are actually working at the mine. He has been trained to do that and he has clear guidelines for reporting on a daily basis. He is working 40 hours a week exclusively on prevention, checking all aspects of health and safety and health standards, including those provided by the Labour Standards, Pay Equity and Workplace Health and Safety Board (CNESST).

I went to the mine twice recently. I did a simulation on how the return to work is going to be done. I saw some shortcomings, especially with regard to hand washing, where we must ensure that the worker uses the 20 seconds needed to wash his hands properly.

WF: Would you like to say something in conclusion?

AR: We agree to go back to work, but not at any cost. We want to make sure that our workers are well protected so as to protect their families and loved ones. It is in our best interest to follow the guidelines of Public Health.

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