July 23, 2020 - No. 50

Use of Pandemic as Excuse to Trample Workers' Rights

All Out to Stand Up for the Rights of All!

Say NO! to Ontario Bill 195 - Steve Rutchinski

Workers Speak Out
Union Press Conference Demands Withdrawal of Ontario Bill 195
Quebec's Ministerial Orders Are Unacceptable - Interview, Benoît Taillefer

Use of Pandemic as Excuse to Trample Workers' Rights

All Out to Stand Up for the Rights of All!

Governments across the country are engaging in unacceptable self-serving activities under the cover of the pandemic. While the working people have taken a clear stand against returning to "business as usual" -- a state of affairs that continues to worsen the pandemic -- governments are using the situation to take away any voice the working people have. Already, the push for profit-based health care has led to a disproportionately high number of deaths due to COVID-19 in private long-term care homes with deplorable conditions. For example, CBC reported in June that 82.5 per cent of deaths in long-term care homes in eastern Ontario have been in for-profit facilities. Already, the anti-social offensive, pay-the-rich schemes and impunity pushed by governments for the past 20 and more years has caused utter deterioration of the social conditions.

When the ruling class started pushing the anti-social offensive they arrogantly declared that it would lead to prosperity. All the measures they have taken have made the rich richer and the poor poorer and usurped more and more powers into the hands of narrow private interests. Privatization, the elimination of all traces of the social welfare state and "changes to fiscal and budgetary policy" were accompanied by attacks on unions and all arrangements from the past whereby workers could negotiate wages and working conditions and security during illness, injury and retirement. The arrogance is such that the working people are not included in any discussion about the direction of the economy or social, political and cultural policy and affairs. The political system which claims they have representation through the election of political parties to form governments has no credibility or legitimacy because the people control no aspect of the electoral system -- from who is selected to represent them and use their name to adopt and carry out policies, to what policies are adopted, to any decisions made.

This is the heart of the matter which reveals the need for political renewal. It is thanks to the fight of the working class against government fraud, corruption and cynical claims that the people still have any measure of security. The use of the pandemic as a pretext to justify emergency police powers is reprehensible. The working people must unequivocally condemn this and put an end to it.

Governments in Quebec, Ontario and Alberta are declaring and implementing serious anti-social measures, using the pandemic to give themselves all kinds of powers in the name of the greater good and restoring the economy. Working people are entitled to be consulted and participate in setting the direction of the economy and being an integral, equal part of any decisions taken because they affect them, their lives and those of their families in every way.

It is time to reject all claims that such legislative changes are constitutional or can be made constitutional or acceptable if a mythical system of checks and balances prevails. There are no "checks and balances" within the realm of government dictate. There is the striving of the rich to control everything and the heroic efforts of the working people and their organizations to hold them in check. But the division of the society between those who have usurped power through corruption, fraud and force and those who are supposed to submit without resistance is at the heart of the anarchy, chaos and violence in the form of the most heinous injustices and abuses of all kinds which prevails today.

Everyone must speak out against the use of emergency police powers for criminal self-serving aims of paying the rich. No to Ontario Bill 195, the Reopening Ontario (A Flexible Response to COVID-19) Act, 2020, which empowers Cabinet to make temporary orders adopted during the COVID-19 state of emergency permanent. No to Quebec Bill 61, An Act to restart Québec's economy and to mitigate the consequences of the public health emergency declared on 13 March 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic; and Alberta Bill 10, the Public Health (Emergency Powers) Amendment Act, 2020, which seek to do the same thing.

The situation facing the working people has become a battle for democracy where all egregious anti-democratic measures must be rescinded, as well as a battle of democracy in which the working people must vest the decision-making power in themselves. This starts by taking a stand against what is unacceptable, speaking out, deciding what measures can be implemented at any time to resolve the crisis in their favour and setting a new direction for the economy. The working people cannot afford to be merely reactive to every attack launched against them but must also learn to be pro-active. Those who are arrogantly using their positions of power and privilege to do all the things which cause such damage to society and the people must be removed, not be replaced by more of the same but by the working people themselves.

Defeat Anti-Workers Anti-Social Legislation!
No the "Emergency Powers"!
The Time to Act Is Now!

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Say NO! to Ontario Bill 195

On July 7 the government of Ontario introduced Bill 195, the Reopening Ontario (A Flexible Response to COVID-19) Act, 2020, to empower Cabinet to extend temporary orders issued during the COVID-19 state of emergency, once the emergency is lifted. The majority of orders issued override in one way or another the collective agreements of workers, especially front-line health care workers in hospitals, long-term care homes, retirement homes and so on. But the reach of the bill extends far beyond these workers, to include people working for boards of education, social services, water systems and sewage works and more.

Bill 195 passed second and third reading on July 21, then received Royal Assent the same day. The new law will come into force on a day to be proclaimed by the Cabinet. It is yet one more expression of the anti-social offensive that is destroying the social fabric of our society, just as Bill 124 enacted last year imposed a three-year wage freeze on all public sector employees in Ontario.

Bill 195 will formally end the state of emergency but allows the emergency orders issued under the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act (EMCPA) to be continued by decree of the Lieutenant Governor in Council (i.e. the provincial Cabinet). Whereas under the EMCPA emergency orders had to be re-approved every 14 days, under Bill 195 they can be renewed by Cabinet for 30-day periods, for up to one year, and the powers of the bill can be extended for a further year. Orders may also be amended to apply to additional persons or groups.

The bill also comes with harsh enforcement provisions, although it is unclear how they will be interpreted and implemented.

Information pickets sprang up almost immediately condemning this attack on workers' rights. Workers and their unions are discussing how to respond. Michael Hurley, President of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions/Canadian Union of Public Employees (OCHU/CUPE), which represents 50,000 hospital workers, held press conferences in North Bay, Sudbury and elsewhere to inform and call on the public to stand with the workers against Bill 195. The Ontario Nurses Association (ONA) has held two online information sessions engaging thousands of their members in discussion on the implications of Bill 195 for nurses and patients. Service Employees International Union Healthcare (SEIU Healthcare), which represents 60,000 front-line workers in Ontario condemned Bill 195 as "a gift to the for-profit long-term care industry to override the collective agreement by enabling more shifts to newer, lower-paid workers."

Other union organizations like Unifor, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) and the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) have also strongly condemned the actions of the Ford government. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) described Bill 195 as an "undemocratic power grab" and called on Ontario MPPs to resist it.

"In essence, Bill 195 would give the Premier and Ministers the power to impose emergency orders that drastically curtail basic rights and freedoms without the need to engage in the legislative process or involve members of the Legislative Assembly," the CCLA said. It opposed the fact that the special powers "would last for at least a year and can be extended by the Legislative Assembly for a year at a time. Indefinitely. The powers governments have under emergency legislation are supposed to be exceptional -- Bill 195 would make the exercise of those powers the 'new normal.'"

The powers at the disposal of the Premier and the Cabinet under the EMCPA are considerable, including the power to issue orders deemed "necessary and essential in the circumstances to prevent, reduce or mitigate serious harm to persons." No information or assessment is provided as to whether the government in fact did anything "to prevent, reduce or mitigate serious harm to persons" or what precisely it has done and the consequences to the people of Ontario.

Most of the emergency orders issued under the current COVID-19 pandemic emergency state explicitly that despite the existence of any collective agreement, employers set staffing priorities and may unilaterally redeploy staff as required, change work schedules or shift assignments, cancel vacations, hire part-time, temporary or contractor labour and use volunteers to perform bargaining unit work. Grievance procedures are suspended for any matter referred to in the order.

This has no intention other than trampling underfoot the role the unions play on all these fronts. The fact that unions have cooperated every step of the way to make sure the population is protected is ignored as is the fact that it is the workers who know what is required at their places of work so that everyone is protected. There is no legitimate justification of any kind for these special powers.

It never was the case that the terms and conditions of work set out in collective agreements put anyone at risk of "serious harm." Health care professionals and workers from the outset have gone above and beyond the call of duty, put their lives on the line, to care for the sick and elderly. The working conditions of health professionals and workers are in fact the living conditions of the elderly and those in need of care in our society.

The COVID-19 pandemic revealed what the workers have been saying all along, that privatization, cut backs in service, degradation of wages and working conditions of health care workers, hiring of casual, part-time labour, and the entire fend-for-oneself approach has caused serious harm to society. It has been an unmitigated disaster for our elderly in long-term care and generally left the population vulnerable. To override collective agreements during the pandemic state of emergency did nothing to "alleviate the risk" for anyone, least of all the health care workers or those receiving care. The fact that this is used to undermine the fight of unions to stop the deterioration of workers' conditions of employment and the ability to negotiate these is straightforward fraud, corruption, and abuse of power.

Every day of this pandemic, front-line workers have been fighting to keep themselves and the public safe. Workers must continue to speak out in defence of their rights, against this anti-social offensive and for a new human-centred direction for society. It is by laying the claim to what belongs to all by right that a "new normal" which serves society will be brought into being.

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Workers Speak Out

Union Press Conference Demands
Withdrawal of Ontario Bill 195

Nurses demand the repeal of Bill 124, which imposed a three-year wage freeze on all public sector workers in Ontario.

On July 21, Michael Hurley, President of the Canadian Union of Public Employees' Ontario Council of Hospital Unions (OCHU/CUPE) and Steven Barrett, a labour lawyer with Goldblatt Partners addressed a press conference called to highlight the impact of Bill 195 on hospital workers' rights and to demand that the bill be withdrawn. The excerpts below are taken from the remarks Hurley made in response to questions from the media, including Workers' Forum, about the impact of the bill and the union's determination to force the government to withdraw the bill through the workers' mass struggle.

"This bill gives employers across the health care sector the right to act unilaterally. An employer does not have to pay any attention to the collective agreements that are in place. It can move you from your job to another job, from the shift you are on to another shift. It can lay you off without notice. It could bring in someone else to do your work from outside. It could contract [out] that work. It could cancel all leaves and vacations and of course one of the significant things is it can do all that whether it has COVID cases or not. All of the health care employers are empowered under this legislation to operate without regarding the rights that exist in the contract even though most hospitals and most long-term care facilities in Ontario have no COVID cases. And this continues for a period of a year [and is] renewable -- could be two years, could be three years. What we have said to the government is 'Look, if you have another outbreak of COVID, or Ebola or typhoid, you've got to believe that, as we were in March, we are going to be flexible. But setting permanent suspension of our rights is not acceptable.'

"We have to take into account the price the workforce has paid already in terms of the failure of the provincial government to provide them with adequate protection. This is the case and, to put it in context worldwide, the rate of infection of health care workers' cases relative to public cases of COVID is about six per cent worldwide versus 17.4 per cent in Ontario, which is about three times greater. Despite that, people have gone to work, and they have provided care and they have put themselves at risk and they have been quite appropriately applauded for that -- and they can be trusted, they can be counted on. We are asking the government to trust them, to trust that if there is another outbreak they will come through for people as they did before.

"There will be a legal challenge against the bill. But we are hoping to get the government to move before this gets to court. We are going to do our best to achieve that.

"We are going to be organizing, and we won't be alone. We hope to do it with other unions, regional rallies that respect social distancing and provincial demonstrations. We have the support of the Federation of Labour and of the labour councils in Ontario. We are going to be asking people to help us to pressure the government, to support our email and other efforts on social media to distribute our message and to participate in all of our protests. I am really hopeful that together we can be very effective."

On behalf of the law firm Goldblatt Partners, Steven Barrett explained OCHU/CUPE's two-fold legal argument for the withdrawal of Bill 195. First, the bill violates several Supreme Court of Canada rulings which uphold the right to collective bargaining on the basis of the Charter right of association. He added that the fact that Bill 195 explicitly says that the COVID-19 emergency is over deprives the government of the legal argument to invoke the emergency to justify violating collective bargaining rights. Secondly, Bill 195 follows Bill 124, the Protecting a Sustainable Public Sector for Future Generations Act, 2019that the government enacted in 2019, prior to the pandemic, which limits compensation increases for public sector workers to one per cent per year for a three-year period. One of the realities that COVID-19 has made even clearer than before, Barrett said, is the fact that the CUPE workers that OCHU represents are paid too little. Yet Bill 124 prevents them, for a three-year period, from negotiating appropriate compensation that recognizes the essential critical nature of the services they provide, before and during the pandemic. He said that Bill 195 compounds the unconstitutional attack that started with Bill 124.

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Quebec's Ministerial Orders Are Unacceptable

Picket at Rivière-des-Prairies hospital in Montreal, June 29, 2020.

Benoît Taillefer is Vice-President, Occupational Health and Safety for the Workers' Union of the Integrated University Health and Social Services Centre, Montreal North.

Workers' Forum: Your members are required, by ministerial order, to train thousands of new orderlies who are receiving far less than the normal hours of education. What is the situation now with the new orderlies doing their internship in the residential and long-term care centres (CHSLDs)?

Benoît Taillefer: First of all, I must say that I have absolutely no problem with people coming to join us and that they are paid good wages. At the same time, there are people who have been here for a long time, who see new people coming in who have not had to do everything they did to become full-time -- working days, evenings, nights, having to be on-call seven days a week and so on. I'm happy for the young people who are coming to work. I am less happy for those who have fought for positions and who, after years, still do not have access to full-time positions and feel they have been left behind.

The problem is that the government does not negotiate. It just issues decrees and announces them publicly.

When we, in good faith, ask for recognition of the value of health care workers, when we ask for wage increases for all low wage earners, which would be, in fact, a wage catch-up for the past 20 years, they just laugh at us.

At this time, training for these new orderlies has just begun. Workers are calling me, telling me about overwork, about a training task being imposed on them on top of their regular duties, instead of asking for volunteers to take on the training. What is more, five dollars a day for that responsibility is ridiculous. We have to take the time to train someone properly because we are caring for human beings and we have to pass on to the newcomers the best of what we know. We are doing our best to train them properly and we also have to do all our other duties. Our workers are not being replaced while they are doing training. They are expected to do both their job and the training. We're talking about training people who have done a bit of theory and who don't have any field experience. We are in a situation where our members were already overworked before the pandemic started and now they have to do this training as an additional task. We are in the process of verifying all the information that our members are giving us, to build a serious case on the issue.

Once again, we hear nice words from the politicians about how the "guardian angels" are precious and how they must be valued, but this is not what we experience on the ground.

WF: Governments are using the pretext of the pandemic to rule through increased ministerial dictate. What is your opinion on this?

BT: The government is being politically opportunistic with its use of the COVID-19 crisis. Ministerial orders are not an acceptable way of governing. We have a collective agreement that has been negotiated and signed in good faith. Now we have ministerial order after ministerial order being imposed on us, violating our rights and we do not have a say. I understand that we are in crisis and that there are emergencies, but there are limits and they should not be making our people sick. When you can no longer take summer vacations, when people are exhausted, when there are health care workers who have died in the field, and when more than 5,000 people have died from COVID-19 in Quebec, many of them in long-term care centres, that shows a total lack of recognition for workers. And yet the health care workers are the ones who do the work and who unfortunately sometimes die as a result. It is time government paid attention to our concerns and demands, especially when it comes to our health and safety. The government must stop passing ministerial orders and must talk to the unions in good faith.

Employers must also understand that unions are not enemies but partners. Not co-managers, but partners. This is especially true when it comes to health and safety, and COVID-19 is a health and safety issue. I represent people who do the job. They know what they're talking about and they need to be consulted and listened to.

I continue to believe that the union needs to be more involved. There has to be communication that involves the unions on a daily basis. I know this is happening in some of our centres. There are lunch hour team meetings to review the situation, where nurses and attendants participate.

When you're part of the team that gets together to come up with a solution to a problem, you're going to implement it. When you had no say and it's imposed on you and it doesn't make sense, implementation is a problem. For things to work well, workers have to be valued and recognized and their autonomy has to be respected. When that doesn't happen, what we hear in the field is "Of course, we're just attendants," so they are not included in the discussion. The devaluation of orderlies is a serious problem.

The government is trying to ensure that the situation remains the same. So are employers. They give us information, directives, and we are supposed to do what they tell us to do. But when we want to communicate things, make claims or proposals, we are not listened to.

We can't go back to what we call "business as usual." We have to understand that there is a major problem. There is a general overload of work. We don't have time to provide what I call psychosocial care. I understand that we are not psychosocial intervention professionals, but the support we give to people at the end of life is still psychosocial support. Who is closer to the residents, apart from the family, than the attendants? And many residents have no family. They have been left on their own. It is with the attendants that they communicate, express their distress, their needs. We don't have the time to give them that kind of care. We used to have it, but we don't anymore. We had it 30 years ago, when I started to work in the sector, and it was wonderful. We're almost racing now to do our job. Bringing in 10,000 new people isn't going to create a miracle. We have to be able to do the job worthy of the name, worthy of what an orderly is.

Some corrective measures have been applied. Now there are masks at the entrance to the CHSLDs. There is a guard at each entrance. People enter through only one door. The entrance is guarded 24 hours a day. You have to sign in when you enter. Workers who have symptoms have to report, and if they do have symptoms, they go home and are paid, so that's good. There are steps being taken to limit the spread of COVID-19.

The fact remains that there is a fundamental crisis in the CHSLDs. The COVID-19 pandemic has lifted the veil on the many aberrations in the health care system. No one wants to bring things back to the way they were. That is completely out of the question. We have to learn from the lessons that COVID-19 taught us.

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