October 4, 2021 - No. 91

Workers Nationwide Fight New Assault on Health Care

Governments' Refusal to Protect
the People

Actions in Alberta in August oppose Kenney government's reckless reopening measures.

Alberta Government Adds Health Care Facilities to Its "Critical Infrastructure" Legislation - Peggy Morton
Manitoba Nurses Call for Action on Staff Shortages and Poor Working Conditions
Ontario Hospital Workers Stand Firm in Defence of Their Rights
New Brunswick Workers Demand Immediate Action to Address Staff Shortages in Seniors' Homes

Workers Nationwide Fight New Assault on Health Care

Governments' Refusal to Protect the People

On September 29, Canadian Medical Association President Katharine Smart issued a statement entitled "We need to mobilize now: Alberta and Saskatchewan's health systems at breaking point." In it she calls for, among other things, effective public health measures such as 'firebreakers' or 'circuit breakers' to aggressively control COVID-19 cases, bringing health workers from other provinces to assist, and transporting patients to other provinces that have ICU capacity. She told the Globe and Mail in a phone interview that "What we're seeing now is essentially no ability to provide any other acute-care medicine beyond care to people with COVID. So, in essence, the health care system has already collapsed." In her published statement she said, "We are now witnessing an unprecedented health care crisis in Alberta and Saskatchewan -- and patients and health workers are experiencing unfathomable choices and consequences. Early relaxation of public health measures has left two crumbling health care systems in their wake and the dire realities are now in full view."

Alberta currently provides the worst example of social irresponsibility in this regard, but other provinces are in fact no better. The agenda of the ruling United Conservative Party (UCP) in Alberta "to keep the economy open," no matter the consequences serves the demands of the monopolies and is rejected by all those on the front lines of the healthcare system. The government has nonetheless already rejected all calls to take strict public health measures to get the pandemic under control.

Kenney himself, in response to calls from every quarter for a circuit-breaker lockdown as was implemented at the start of the pandemic, made the outrageous comment that he would not do so because that would "punish" people who are vaccinated. While frontline workers and people everywhere are making sacrifices, taking social responsibility to protect themselves and others and demanding government action to protect everyone, Kenney speaks only on behalf of the narrow private interests that insist that the economy stay "open."

When the province dropped virtually all public health measures early in the summer there was massive opposition, with daily demonstrations and appeals from health care workers, doctors, municipal politicians and the public to reverse course. The consequences of the government's refusal to act are seen in the current situation. As of October 1, Alberta had the highest rate of infections in the country -- close to four times the national average -- and deaths from COVID-19 in Alberta are about triple the national average. Saskatchewan is in a similar situation.

At the base of the health care crisis is the crisis of democracy, that it is not the people who are sovereign, who are the decision-makers. The crisis of representative democracy is such that the people have no say on matters that concern them and governments act on behalf of the rich and not the people no matter the consequences.

Frontline workers and health care professionals know what needs to be done and are continuing to fight for what is needed. Solutions to problems can be found if everyone is informed and involved in working out solutions. Whether the need is for human resources or for equipment or for increased hospital capacity, the solutions depend on the mobilization of the working class to unite all those whose common aim is the well-being of the society itself.

(Photos: WF, Radical Citizens' Media)

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Alberta Government Adds Health Care Facilities to Its "Critical Infrastructure" Legislation

Health care workers demonstrate outside Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton, October 26, 2020 to defend their rights. 

The Kenney government in Alberta has announced it will add hospitals and health care facilities to the "critical infrastructure" designated by its anti-worker, anti-social nation-wrecking Bill 1, The Critical Infrastructure Defence Act. This is done at a time health care workers have warned that they will not be able to prevent the collapse of the health care system which has endured almost three decades of neo-liberal assault. They are further saying that the government must immediately implement the measures which health care workers are calling for. The government is not just turning a deaf ear to the workers but expanding its arbitrary powers to attack their right to negotiate their own wages and working conditions, and the right of the people to have a sustainable health care system. 

Bill 1 was introduced in February 2020 as a direct attack on Indigenous people standing as one with the Wet'suwet'en. In introducing Bill 1, Kenney made it crystal clear that the legislation was specifically in response to that month’s countrywide actions in support of the Wet'suwet'en Land Defenders' fight against the energy monopoly Coastal GasLink's pipeline that will cross their traditional territory in northern BC, without their consent.

Bill 1 makes it an offence to "without lawful right, justification or excuse, wilfully obstruct, interrupt or interfere with the construction, maintenance, use or operation of any essential infrastructure in a manner that renders the essential infrastructure dangerous, useless, inoperative or ineffective."

Now, using as a pretext the "anti-vax" rallies which took place outside hospitals, hospitals and health care facilities will be added through regulations to the long list of "critical infrastructure" which the bill "protects." Under this law police can make arrests without obtaining a warrant or injunction. It also makes it an offence to aid, counsel, or direct another person to commit an offence under the Act, irrespective of whether the other person actually commits the offence.

Bill 1 has already evoked a storm of criticism from the Indigenous peoples, workers and their organizations, human rights organizations, legal experts and many others, and the government's claim that it is "upholding law and order" has been met with the contempt it deserves. This announcement will only intensify the resistance.

The claim that this legislation is aimed at "anti-vaxxers" cannot be taken seriously, any more than the claim that the aim is to protect health care. United Nurses of Alberta (UNA) president Heather Smith expressed concern about the timing of Alberta's change. The government could be trying to impede future job action, she told the Edmonton Journal referring to the fact that protests at the hospitals are not taking place at this time.

"Certainly, I am concerned that that is the intent because, as I said, the timing of it seems very suspicious and disconnected to actual activities of concern," she said. UNA is currently in mediation, and the government continues to demand that nurses accept wage rollbacks and attacks on their working conditions which would only make the crisis in hiring and retaining nurses more acute.

Charter challenges to Bill 1 are already in motion. It will also certainly be challenged by the people in action to defend their human rights as well as their civil rights. When laws do not recognize the rights which belong to people by virtue of their being, including the sovereign rights of Indigenous peoples and the rights of workers as the producers of all social value, a serious problem arises. In this regard, Bill 1 and its expansion to health care may be legal but it also deepens the conflict between the authority and the conditions. The fact that the authority does not conform to what the conditions require is a big problem facing the people and society. It needs to be addressed and resolved. It is not a problem which can be sorted out by using force and violence in the name of "law and order."

Whether or not Bill 1 is found to be unconstitutional, which is quite possible, it is certainly in contempt of a modern understanding of the purpose of law to serve the cause of justice. When the law is not seen to be just, and when it is imposed through arbitrary powers in an attempt to threaten, intimidate, bully, and criminalize those who are defending their rights and the rights of all to get them to submit, it must be replaced with a rule of law worthy of the name.

If Kenney and his ilk try to use Bill 1 to attack nurses and other health care workers who have gone so far above and beyond at the cost of their own well-being trying to keep the health care system functioning, the government will reap the whirlwind!

Our Security Lies in the Fight for the Rights of All!

(Photos: WF, Friends of Medicare, Radical Citizens' Media)

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Manitoba Nurses Call for Action on Staff Shortages and Poor Working Conditions

Action at Manitoba legislature on Canadian nurses day of action, September 17, 2021. (MNU)

For many years the Manitoba government has been making cuts to the health care system while reorganizing to open up the system to increased privatization. Nurses report short-staffing so serious that many beds and hospital units are closed because of the shortage of nurses to staff them. The shortages were already significant before the pandemic and now have reached a critical level.

The Manitoba Nurses Union (MNU) which represents more than 12,000 nurses in the province reported on September 17, the nationwide Nurses Day of Action, that there were more than 2,200 vacant positions in the province at that time, about 1,500 of those in Winnipeg, and that earlier in September seven nurses left Winnipeg's St. Boniface Hospital in a nine-day period. The President of the MNU, Darlene Jackson, said that she herself was planning to retire, "even though I would have stayed in the profession another five years if I was working in a reasonable situation where I wasn't mandated to work 16 hours every shift I go to work."

While nurses are working short-staffed and forced to work excessive overtime, hospitals are increasingly bringing in nurses from private agencies. Information provided to the MNU by Shared Health and the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority reveals that the number of hours worked by agency nurses doubled in the last four years, from 181,378 province-wide in the 2017-18 fiscal year to 368,775 in the 2020-21 fiscal year. In Winnipeg alone the number of hours worked by agency nurses increased from 9,493 in 2018-19 to 66,359 in 2019-20, an almost seven-fold increase. Agency nurses are paid more, have more flexibility in work assignments and are not forced to work overtime.

The use of agency nurses ostensibly alleviates the nursing shortage but once making money is the motive of every arrangement brought into being everyone suffers the consequences. At present, in most cases agency nurses are assigned to medical and surgical floors and not to high-intensity areas like Emergency Departments and Intensive Care Units. Often that means that hospital nurses assigned to medical and surgical floors are reassigned to those high-intensity units for which they are not properly trained, and their places taken by agency nurses. Then hours and working conditions become even more untenable and this is designed to push even more nurses into the private system. Soon, all those nurses also will be pushed to the limit and have no defence whatsoever. The time to oppose this is now. 

Nurses oppose the diversion of public funds to private agencies and are demanding increased investment to recruit and retain nurses and for improved working conditions including the elimination of mandatory overtime and arbitrary shift reassignments that make working conditions intolerable and are driving nurses to quit.

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Ontario Hospital Workers Stand Firm in
Defence of Their Rights

September 10, 2021 rally opposes Ontario Hospital Association demands for concessions.

Contract negotiations between the Ontario Hospital Association (OHA) and the representatives of 70,000 hospital workers represented by the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions (OCHU) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) have broken down. The unions announced in a press release dated September 29 that the OHA has refused to seriously address the pressing health and safety needs of workers.

The press release states that "While dealing with exhaustion and the mental and physical scars of four waves of pandemic work, Ontario hospital workers faced an aggressive attack on their working conditions and wages by their hospital employers, who pushed rollbacks in this round of provincial contract negotiations, which began in June and continued through September." Among the demands of the workers that the OHA has rejected are guaranteed access to pandemic safety equipment, and improved violence and mental health supports.

The unions report that racially-directed abuse, sexual assault and harassment, and physical violence and aggression against hospital workers is a significant and growing problem. They cited a recent poll of 2,658 frontline hospital workers in which 66 per cent said that violent incidents have increased during the pandemic.

The other safety issue on which the workers are holding firm is on pandemic protection. Michael Hurley, President of OCHU says in the press release: "The hospitals have refused throughout the pandemic to treat COVID-19 as an airborne virus and to protect against that threat, which has had a terrible impact on patient and worker safety. Protecting staff from contracting or spreading the virus by providing them with effective equipment is fundamental to protecting them, their families, and the patients they care for. At least 860 Ontario patients have died from the virus contracted in hospital."

Sharleen Stewart, president of SEIU Healthcare said that "Abhorrent working conditions in Ontario's hospitals mean that surgical backlogs will continue, and patient care will be put at risk. The provincial government and the Ontario Hospital Association are driving our hospital system further into the ditch and our unions simply cannot abide by their claw back of support at the bargaining table."

Health care workers are also faced with the Ford government's legislation, Bill 124, which decrees a cap on compensation increases of one per cent per year for three years. Throughout the summer the unions organized actions at hospitals throughout the province in support of their campaign for wages and working conditions that are acceptable to workers, under the theme "Respect Us. Protect Us. Pay Us." These actions were organized to inform Ontarians of the conditions of hospital workers and mobilize public opinion for their fight in defence of their rights and the rights of all. With the breakdown of negotiations the unions say they will be doubling their efforts to speak directly to Ontarians.

(Photos: OCHU)

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New Brunswick Workers Demand Immediate Action to Address Staff Shortages in Seniors' Homes

Seniors living in New Brunswick nursing homes are being denied basic care because of the significant shortage of staff. For example, the president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 5108, representing more than 225 workers at the Résidences Jodin home in Edmunston, reports that residents are not getting the 2.89 hours of direct daily care required under provincial government standards. "We are running so short that the average direct care hours per resident is closer to 1.8 hours per day. This is unacceptable and shameful," she said. Another worker reported that on the weekend of September 11-12 there were only two workers for every 30 residents when the bare minimum required is five.

The union reports that inspectors from the Department of Social Development, whose job it is to monitor the amount of time seniors are being cared for, are not getting an accurate picture of the situation. The inspector assigned to Résidences Jodin does not make surprise visits and each time he visits management brings in more staff. The workers ask, "Why doesn't the inspector compile the schedules of the employees over the last few months to show the minister what is really happening here?"

The New Brunswick Council of Nursing Home Unions (NBCNHU), which represents more than 4,600 nursing home workers, held an online press conference on September 27 to demand immediate action from the province to address the under-staffing crisis by implementing a $4.00 an hour pay increase for all workers in long-term care homes. Union leaders pointed out that the average wage for CUPE nursing home workers in New Brunswick is $21.00 per hour which is one of the lowest in the country. They cited the action taken in BC and Ontario and other jurisdictions to raise the wage rate for long-term care home workers early in the pandemic as part of measures to ensure that workers did not have to work multiple jobs in different homes to make a living, something that has not been done in New Brunswick.

At the press conference union representatives said that the situation brought to public attention by the workers at Résidences Jodin was also happening in Bathurst, Saint John, Woodstock and many other places. Sharon Teare, President of the NBCNHU explained, "Seniors are going without baths for whole weeks, they stay in bed all day and are even dying alone, because of serious short staffing. It's getting worse as months go by." It should be noted that the 2.89 hours that the province requires is also low, with most advocates calling for a minimum of 4 hours of direct care per day.

The staff shortage in nursing homes has worsened over the course of the pandemic and workers are facing an impossible situation. While they continue to go above and beyond in their efforts to provide the care that seniors need they are unable to do so and the consequences to the health and safety of seniors and workers alike are devastating. The demand of the workers for immediate government action to address the problem of short-staffing deserves the support of everyone.

(Photos: WF, NBCNHU)

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