May 14, 2020 - No. 34

Ontario Health Care Workers Defend Their Right
to Safe Working Conditions

Nurses Speak Out

Adequate Protective Equipment Urgently Required
Call for Public Inquiry and Criminal Investigations into Deaths in
Long-Term Care

Defending the Rights of Unemployed Workers
Valiant Struggle of Unemployed Workers' Defence Organizations Must Be Supported By All!
Interview, Line Sirois, Coordinator, Action Chômage Côte-Nord

In Defence of the Dignity and Rights of Transport Workers
U.S. Truckers in Action to Demand Immediate Haulage Rate Increases
Canadian and Quebec Truckers Are One with U.S.
- Normand Chouinard

Ontario Health Care Workers Defend Their Right to Safe Working Conditions

Nurses Speak Out

With at least five COVID-19 related deaths and more than 3,000 Ontario health care workers infected, Ontario Nurses' Association (ONA) President Vicki McKenna said "pandemic planning and infection principles weren't enacted quickly enough" in Ontario. McKenna said the ONA had warned the Ontario government in January that years of understaffing made long-term care homes vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic.

After the first case was identified in Ontario, unions, seniors' advocates and long-term care experts warned the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care of the risks. "They listened but there was no action," McKenna said. It wasn't until there were positive cases starting to percolate in long-term care, that the light went on ... and the focus turned to long-term care, she added.

While governments claim they did not have a "playbook" for dealing with outbreaks in nursing homes, McKenna says in fact there were several, with "federal and provincial pandemic plans, post-SARS reports and infection prevention and control guidelines -- all painstakingly developed in preparation for the inevitable next pandemic."

ONA is also speaking out against the government policy of re-using masks and providing inappropriate masks. Ontario Health has advised employers to collect used N95 and surgical masks and to store these in biohazard bags for potential reprocessing. ONA advises any health care worker, who is placing an N95 into a container for potential reuse, to be careful not to contaminate themselves. Furthermore ONA says there is no conclusive scientific evidence that supports reusing N95 masks. "We have advised government that, until there is clear evidence and science on safety, ONA will not consider these options without clear scientific evidence that these masks meet the standards for safe use in health-care settings."

Reusable cotton fabric masks are also being offered to nurses and health care professionals. Again ONA is advising that the effectiveness of cotton masks is not proven and may put the user at risk. "Our best advice is to respectfully decline the offer of these cotton face masks. We strongly advise you to continue to use only approved personal protective equipment."

Refusal by government authorities to take appropriate measures to protect the health of front line workers has forced ONA to take legal action. The union, for example, filed an injunction as a "last resort" against four nursing homes where more than 70 residents have died. The homes named include three owned by Rykka Care Centres Group -- Eatonville Care Centre in Toronto, Anson Place Centre in Hagersville and Hawthorne Place Care Centre in North York. A separate application was filed against Henley Place, operated by Primacare Living Solutions, located in London.

Ontario Superior Court Justice Edward Morgan ruled in favour of the ONA case, ordering the four Ontario long-term care homes to allow nurses to use their "professional judgment" to determine necessary PPE. He rejected the legal arguments of the nursing home chain that the nurses and other medical staff treating COVID-19 patients in LTC homes were representing "their own narrow, personal interests" while the privately-owned LTC homes represent broad, "community-based interests." 

Long-term care homes must now follow the Chief Medical Officer of Health's directives, the ONA collective agreement, and Occupational Health & Safety laws regarding nurses' access to PPE, communication, testing, cleaning, staffing, cohorting of residents and self-isolation. ONA President Vicki McKenna said, "Long-term care nurses and health-care professionals have been trying desperately to stem the spread of COVID-19, and this decision obliges employers to work co-operatively with ONA to achieve that goal."

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Adequate Protective Equipment Urgently Required

Across Ontario thousands of hospital and long-term care workers represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) held a forceful workplace protest on Wednesday May 6 calling on the Premier to end the rationing of personal protective equipment (PPE) and to secure higher level N95 masks to better protect them. In hospitals and long term care homes CUPE front line workers in unison raised posters demanding protective gear at the same time CUPE Ontario and CUPE's Ontario Council of Hospital Unions (OCHU/CUPE) held a province-wide ZOOM press conference to make public the workers' demands.

The situation is unacceptable and unsustainable. The number of Ontario health care workers infected with COVID-19 rose from 2016 on April 27 to 2892 on May 5. This is 876 more infections in just eight days, an alarming 43.5 per cent increase. On May 13, CTV reported the number had risen to 3,562. On May 12, a nurse who worked at a long term care home in London died of COVID-19 -- the first registered nurse to die as a result of the disease in Canada.

CUPE notes that front line health care workers now account for nearly 16 per cent of the province's COVID-19 cases. "That is an infection rate four times that of China and 60 per cent higher than Italy, which sits at 10 per cent health care worker infections."

Michael Hurley, president of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions (OCHU), the hospital division of CUPE, said, "Staff on the COVID-19 front-lines soldier on each day, fighting a war against a highly infectious virus with inadequate equipment, and not enough of it. Five have died, many are falling sick and many of these casualties are completely preventable."

Hurley said that Ontario's recently watered-down safety protocols and the failure to do widespread testing are contributing factors. He said research clearly shows that the lack of protective gear, like N95 masks that block aerosolized virus particles, are among the factors fueling COVID-19 infections among health care workers. "Four per cent of cases in China are health care workers. China uses airborne precautions for COVID-19. Compare that to 16 per cent of Ontario's cases where contact/droplet precautions are used. Ontario's unscientific approach to the virus and its rationing of equipment treat health care workers as cannon fodder. We ask for immediate action from the Premier." The union is calling for the GM plant in Oshawa to make the N95 mask, which GM produces at a plant in Michigan.

CUPE Ontario secretary-treasurer Candace Rennick added that while front line health workers are getting COVID in large numbers, upwards of 25 per cent of health care workers who file a WSIB claim are being denied benefits. Rennick said it is so wrong, "The province must presume the COVID infection to be work-related and accept these claims."

(Photos: OCHU-CUPE)

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Call for Public Inquiry and Criminal Investigations into Deaths in Long-Term Care

SEIU has been organizing actions outside a number of long-term care homes to honour both their members who have died and those working in the homes and to forcefully demand government action. Photo is from May 7, 2020.   

The SEIU Healthcare issued the following call on Tuesday May 5:

"SEIU Healthcare, the union that represents over 60,000 frontline healthcare workers in Ontario, is calling for public inquiries and criminal investigations into COVID-19 related deaths in long-term care to keep people alive and determine accountability.

"First, we're calling on Premier Ford's government to immediately commission a public inquiry, pursuant to section 3 of the Public Inquiries Act, to investigate the deaths of residents and frontline workers at Ontario's long-term care homes.

"Second, we're calling on the Toronto and Peel Regional Police to initiate investigations for criminal negligence at a number of long-term care and homecare providers involving the death of staff.

"Third, we're similarly calling on the Office of the Chief Coroner to use their authorities to inquire into these deaths.

"On Friday, May 1st, our union lost a long-time personal support worker (PSW) who passed away after testing positive for COVID-19. She was the third avoidable death of a PSW in as many weeks."

SEIU Healthcare President Sharleen Steward stated: "A commission is urgently required because until we have a vaccine, or at a minimum treatment available for the entire population, we must prepare now for consecutive spikes or waves of COVID-19. Both frontline workers and the elderly in our long-term care system are saying the same thing: keep us alive. That's why we're calling for urgent investigations that will keep people alive and hold negligent operators responsible for the death of our healthcare heroes."


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Defending the Rights of Unemployed Workers

Valiant Struggle of Unemployed Workers' Defence Organizations Must Be Supported By All!

Workers' Forum firmly supports the current fight of the unemployed workers' defence organizations and the unions backing them to get the federal government to immediately drastically lower the eligibility requirements for employment insurance, and increase the duration of benefits, as well as the actual amounts the unemployed receive. This is urgently needed so that unemployed workers can face the uncertainty that the COVID-19 pandemic is creating about the possibility for them to return to their jobs, especially in regions where seasonal work is by far the main work available.

Clearly, when the government introduced the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) in early April, it provided the unemployed with emergency funds they required to survive the pandemic, even though it took heroic and grueling efforts by these organizations' activists for workers to actually be provided those benefits.

It is also clear that through the introduction of the CERB, a temporary program, the government has avoided having to restructure the employment insurance regime to meet the demands of activists that it be turned into a social program allowing for everyone unemployed to be supported and to live decently. The arbitrariness of the regime remains, such that only around 40 per cent of unemployed workers receive benefits. That arbitrariness now threatens to cause further chaos in the lives of hundreds of thousands of unemployed, particularly seasonal workers, as containment and de-containment measures imposed on their economic sectors by the government leaves it uncertain whether they will be able to return to their jobs. Since the allocation of benefits is based on the number of hours worked, what will happen to the unemployed unable to return to work because their sector is under total or partial lockdown? Will the CERB be maintained long enough to support them?

The truth of the matter is that workers who find themselves unemployed must be protected, and that protection is a right. It is not the pandemic that created the need for protection, but the pandemic is worsening the problem. In that vein, the demand of the defence organizations of the unemployed to immediately lower eligibility requirements so that everyone is eligible and receives benefits that last long enough to get them through the crisis is important and must be supported by everyone. The federal government cannot continue to refuse to renew the EI regime and it cannot maintain the arbitrariness of the regime in the name of the urgency of the crisis. Opening up the regime to the unemployed is what will protect them during the crisis.

All Out to Firmly Support Unemployed Workers' Defence Organizations!

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Interview, Line Sirois, Coordinator,
Action Chômage Côte-Nord

Workers' Forum: How is your work in defence of the unemployed workers going under the current conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Line Sirois: Since March 13, when the Quebec government ordered that people must remain confined to their homes, there hasn't been a moment's respite. It has been very difficult for groups that represent the unemployed. Requests for help have multiplied a hundred times.

The federal government introduced the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) in early April, but people were unable to access the information needed to apply for it. In addition, the federal government had closed Service Canada offices at the end of March, causing a total blackout. People no longer knew where to go for help. The 1-800 number people had to call for information was impossible to reach. People spent hours and days trying to reach that number, but when they got through, they were cut off, the line did not work. Anxiety rose to a very high level. Many of these people did not have the Internet or had never applied for unemployment benefits before. We, the groups defending the unemployed, did not have the information we should have had to help people. Announcements were made, but the information did not reach people. It was hell.

WF: Has the situation improved since then?

LS: Yes, it's better in terms of access to CERB. But the problem now is that people are starting to go back to work and there is a lot of anxiety because COVID-19 is still very much present. On the North Shore we are lucky because there have been no new cases in the last two weeks. But for those who can return to work, we still do not know what will happen to our economic sectors such as tourism. People are asking us if the eligibility criteria for employment insurance will be lowered. If they are able to return to work, they will not work as many hours. 

Those are the questions we are being asked right now. About 80 per cent of the calls are about what will happen to employment insurance if people go back to work and work less hours, whether tourism is going to resume, etc. Even businesses call us. Owners tell us they will go out of business sooner or later. These are very small businesses, inns, restaurants, which are usually open six months a year, but now they may only open for two or three months, if they manage to open at all. On the Upper North Shore, 80 per cent of tourism comes from Europe, especially in Tadoussac, so both workers and small business owners are worried about their future.

We are witnessing the corporate side speaking out right now, saying that CERB is too generous and that people do not want to go to work because they would rather get CERB. This is not true. People who don't want to go to work are afraid. Perhaps not here on the North Shore, but in Montreal, for example, where the pandemic is very serious.

Large companies are saying about students and workers what they have been saying for years about seasonal workers. It is the prejudice that they do not want to work or that they will only work the hours they need to collect employment insurance.

WF: What work is Action-Chômage Côte-Nord doing under these conditions to defend the rights of the unemployed?

LS: We are currently working to build a coalition to put forward special demands to lower the eligibility criteria so that everyone can qualify, and for long enough to get through the year. As you know, the eligibility criteria on the North Shore are very high. We want to ensure that in 2021, when the pandemic is behind us, as we hope it will be, people will be able to have an income that will allow them to make it through the winter. We want drastic measures, and we are working on that at the moment. We want the unions to join us and we want other groups in defence of the unemployed to join us.

WF: This must be a very difficult situation for activists like you and the members of committees such as yours.

LS: Yes, but we are keeping pace. We have no choice because people need us. We respond as best we can. We respond as honestly and as quickly as we can. We do what we can with the small means we have, because as community groups we are not rich.

WF: We wish you all the best in your work. We invite everyone to give you all the support they can. Congratulations on your new website. It is very lively. Everyone can access it here.

LS: Thank you for your support.

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In Defence of the Dignity and Rights of Transport workers

U.S. Truckers in Action to Demand Immediate Haulage Rate Increases

Truckers line the street close to the  White House, May 11, 2020.

Rallies were held in several states in the United States including Connecticut, California, Texas, Ohio, and Kentucky, to protest against the drastic drop in rates in the transportation industry during the pandemic. Working mainly through social networks, including Facebook, rally organizers invited truckers to gather in Washington, D.C. on May 1 across the street from Capitol Hill, as part of the activities to mark the International Day of Working Class Unity and Struggle. In what many have called the "May Day Movement," more than 250 truckers and their trucks are currently parked on the outskirts of government buildings in the U.S. capital.

The vast majority of the truckers are independent carriers, and owners and drivers working for small transportation companies. More than 80 per cent of transportation companies in the United States have fewer than six trucks. It is these truckers who are currently being hit by the drop in rates, which they say has crossed a critical threshold. In some cases rates are reported to have fallen from $3 per mile (about $1.18 per kilometre) paid to truckers to less than $1 per mile (about 39 cents per kilometre) and sometimes to 50 cents per mile (about 20 cents per kilometre). Under these conditions, truckers lose significant revenue on every trip they take. Many of them struggle to pay for the operating costs of their trucks, not to mention maintenance and repairs. Truckers say that if they refuse to take a trip they will lose it to a larger carrier which has the strength to handle the loss. This is a recurring problem in the transportation industry where conditions are very precarious for drivers and small transportation companies.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the transport industry has suffered heavy job losses. The month of April alone saw 83,000 trucking jobs disappear. This is the highest loss since 1990. These recent job losses have eliminated all the job creation of the last 5 years, bringing it back to the 2014 level. The shutdown of thousands of plants in the U.S. has slowed transportation very quickly.

It should be noted that the transport crisis in the United States did not begin with the pandemic. Already, in 2019, more than 1,000 transportation companies had closed or filed for bankruptcy protection (Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code), compared to 175 in 2018. According to the Institute of Supply Management, the 2019 recession in trucking is directly related to the decline in manufacturing, which is said to have reached its lowest level since 2009. The current pandemic crisis has multiplied the consequences of a crisis that had been simmering for more than a year.

The truckers who are currently protesting feel that they are being suffocated by the costs they have to pay, the very low rates they receive for transportation, and the percentage that the huge logistics brokers take on each of their trips. They accuse the brokers of taking an inordinate percentage of the revenue from each trip. Logistics brokers work with truckers as intermediaries between shippers and carriers. For example, a shipper who has, say, 50 trips to deliver to multiple locations, deals with brokers who use their logistics system to distribute the trips among the carriers they are in contact with. Many truckers think that these large brokers are like leeches that suck the life out of truckers who see their share of income constantly diminishing, especially in times of crisis. Truckers say that there is a cartel of logistics brokers that controls prices and is very harmful to truckers. Brokers can take up to 65 per cent of the contract value per trip. According to the organizers of the rallies, brokers are violating the Sherman Anti-Trust Act in the United States. They have made a formal complaint about this to the Department of Justice.

So far, U.S. Department of Transportation officials have remained silent on the truckers' grievances. As for the Trump administration, the U.S. president has tweeted his "support" for the truckers, saying that his administration will take care of them. He sent gifts to them through two White House staffers, blue and red hats with the words "USA strong'" and "Keep America Great." He repeated the same message on the Fox television network. 

When asked by reporters from U.S. magazines and transportation media, organizers said they want a meeting with White House officials in which they want the president to participate. One of the organizers and founders of the Facebook site "The Disrespected Trucker" said, "All we are asking for is a meeting. It can be a phone call. It doesn't have to be face to face... The only one that can help us now is the man in the White House and we are staying until this meeting takes place." The truckers want to remind President Trump, among other things, that just a few weeks ago he thanked U.S. truckers for the essential work they are doing during the pandemic.

Here are the truckers demands that are being put forward in these rallies:

1. Changes to Hours of Service.

2. A decrease of 10 per cent to 20 per cent in the percentage of revenue going to brokers.

3. Greater transparency in transactions between brokers and truckers. Truckers want to know the total amount that goes to brokers when the trip is agreed upon.

4. That all truckers be paid for their waiting time and that this be written into the contracts.

5. Better access to sanitation and personal care facilities.

6. New rules governing pricing between brokers and truckers.

7. Emergency funding from the government and tax relief for day-to-day operations, especially truck costs and maintenance.

8. The elimination of brokers as intermediaries to improve negotiations between truckers and carriers.

9. Rate regulation to ensure industry stability.

According to the latest available news, the Washington rally is still ongoing and organizers have called on all U.S. truckers to call their political representatives to ask why nothing is moving in Washington.

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Canadian and Quebec Truckers Are One
with U.S. Truckers

The battle that truckers are currently waging in the U.S. for an equilibrium in the industry and higher rates that allow them to survive as independent truckers or small owners is longstanding and is facing the truckers' movement throughout North America. This problem did not come into being with the advent of the pandemic, it is a problem that has been brewing for decades, particularly since the era of deregulation in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s. The current crisis has exacerbated the problem to the point where thousands of truckers are at risk of losing their livelihoods and the entire transport industry will be greatly affected.

The question that keeps popping into the minds of truckers is why is this problem never solved?

For the simple reason that the demands of truckers to resolve it have always been ignored by the authorities in power who act on behalf of the big private interests in the big manufacturing sectors, and the big distribution companies that control whole swaths of our economy. The current arrangements also benefit the big transportation companies and, in the situation affecting U.S. truckers today, benefit the big logistics brokers.

Truckers do a considerable amount of work in the economy as part of the production chain in general and the supply chain in particular. This work generates a huge economic value, which, according to U.S. Department of Transportation figures, is worth more than $800 billion a year in trade and transactions.

What we are witnessing today, with trucker rallies across the United States, is a class struggle to capture the value that truckers feel they are entitled to. When some truckers claim that brokers are like leeches, sucking their labour day in and day out, they are absolutely right. The same can be said of other monopolized sectors in distribution, manufacturing and transportation itself.

This battle being waged by truckers goes to the heart of solving a problem that has gone on for too long in our sector. An equilibrium and new arrangements must be created to ensure stability in the industry and the recognition of the inalienable rights of those who do the work and create the value, the transportation workers. The current arrangements cannot guarantee anything. The transportation industry and its truckers are constantly being hit by new crises that periodically decimate them. This time it is the crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic. In 2009 it was the financial crisis. In the 2000s it was the deindustrialization of the economy and before that it was successive deregulations, and so on. This infernal cycle must end.

Truckers everywhere in North America must, without a second's hesitation, support the battle that truckers are waging in the United States. The future is at stake for all of us. This is the time to speak up and contribute to the fight.

One of the organizers of the rally in Washington, D.C., Janet Sanchez, a trucker, made this statement to U.S. truckers: "My message is one of unity between all of us. Really, we can accomplish a lot of things if we are all together." That is the message that all truckers must keep in mind.

The issue of uniting all truckers in action is a complex task that has suffered many setbacks in the past. The current crisis can provide us with an opportunity to move forward and seize the opportunity before us. We do not have a choice.

Enough is enough. Let's say no to low rates. Let's say no to low wages. Keep truckers strong. Stand as one. Let's unite in defence of our rights!

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