The Ontario Nurses Association (ONA) reported on March 3, that contract talks with the Ontario Hospital Association (OHA) have broken down. Negotiations began in January and mediation began the week of February 27 for a contract that would impact roughly 60,000 nurses across the province.
The key issues facing nurses, and public health care in Ontario, is the incredible levels of understaffing. Ontario is desperately in need of 25,000 registered nurses (RN) to meet demand for health care services. This is the worst shortage in Canada and nurses say it is a direct result of the Doug Ford government’s Bill 124, which capped wage increases for public employees at one percent for three years.
On November 29, an Ontario court found Bill 124 to be unconstitutional, infringing on public sector workers’ rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining. Nevertheless, Ford government has appealed the court’s decision and has publicly defended the legislation, insisting that it was necessary, despite internal government documents citing Bill 124 as a contributing factor to the healthcare staffing shortages.
While Doug Ford has publicly admitted that there is a crisis in healthcare and even stated, “we are in need of more nurses, as many as we can get,” his government’s response has been to hard bargain the nurses, failing to come to the table with an offer that addresses the rising cost of living and the wage suppression of the last three years.
Another “solution” on offer from Ford’s Conservative government is to give public money to private clinics through the Your Health Act. The Act aims to address the surgical backlog and wait times by using private clinics to deliver surgeries and diagnostic imaging. However, nurses point out that this will likely increase the drain on the public health system, as public nurses may leave to work in an expanding private system. Private clinics will only take only the easiest patients, leaving the most challenging and time-consuming procedures to the already taxed public system.
A fight for public services in Ontario
Upon taking office, Doug Ford eliminated the paid sick days that workers won in Bill 148, wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting public sector workers in court, budgeted less than inflation increases for healthcare and has hoarded billions meant for public services.
Based on his government’s close relationship with lobbyists, Ford’s long-term plan for healthcare includes finding “efficiencies” in staffing, introducing private virtual care, private health testing, private clinics and even potentially introducing “Uber-style app” for healthcare staffing. This should scare all public sector workers and people who use public services in Ontario. “Finding efficiencies,” cutting budgets and lowering wages and benefits will make public sector work harder and more dangerous and will make public service delivery worse.
This is why a victory for nurses is so important. The priorities of the Ford government are on full display in this contract negotiation: faced with an obvious crisis in hospitals, Ford and his Conservative MPs would rather fund private clinics, and deliver the worst patient ratios in the country than listen to frontline workers who are demanding better pay to retain and recruit more nurses. What kind of Ontario do we want? One with strong public services or one where privatization and tax cuts for corporations are the norm?
Whatever we do, or fail to do, to support nurses will affect the outcome of the nurses struggle–and every other struggle that follows. As trade unionists and decent work activists, we have a responsibility to back those workers who are fighting and help them win. And if they win, workers everywhere will be more confident to take similar steps–strikes and other workplace-based actions–to fight for good jobs and decent wages, and take on Ford’s agenda.
This comes at a time when the right wing is trying to divide our movement by blaming migrants. The federal Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre and Quebec Premier Francois Legault, have been engaging in a public campaign of fear and disinformation around refugees crossing into Quebec at Roxham Road, insisting that they are “pushing social services to their limits.” The Migrant Rights Network, a cross-Canada alliance of migrants rights organizations, which has been pushing for full regularization and permanent residency for all migrants, has provided a powerful response to the manufactured crisis:
“Where workers are fighting collectively, wages are increasing. At the same time, many of us are angry because corporations are getting rich while the rest of us are struggling to pay the bills. In times like these, racism and anti-immigrant hysteria is a strategy of the rich to distract us and divide us, and it has deadly consequences. Once again, we must act firmly, and unite against racism.”
They point out that the people who have crossed Roxham Road in 2022 made up only 3% of the 1.2 million temporary residents that came in that year, 60% were granted refugee status, and point to the chronic underfunding of social services as the real source of strain on the system. Again, this is a manufactured crisis meant to break solidarity and scapegoat migrants for the healthcare crisis.
Resisting this racist division and uniting for good work and safe conditions for all workers and migrants will strengthen the fight against exploitation. An injury to one is an injury to all, that means nurses and migrants. United we fight and when we unite to fight we can win.
How can we win?
For socialists, rank-and-file activists, and decent work campaigners, there are some immediate actions we need to take. If we want the nurses to win we have to build solidarity actively, and understand the purpose of it: to build the confidence of workers to take action themselves.
Think of the “Paint the Province Purple” campaign initiated by Justice For Workers during the education worker bargaining. We engaged in easy, highly visible actions wherever we were; putting up posters at schools, getting parents to sign solidarity statements, leafleting at bus stops, joining pickets and protests and phone banking to get others involved. These sort of solidarity actions helped stitch together networks of activists across the province who were armed with clear politics, confident to arguments in favour of education workers with their coworkers, neighbours, in the letters section of local newspapers, at their union meetings and elsewhere. This helped bolster the confidence of the education workers who were taking on a government intent on criminalizing their rights.
This can and must be done in support of nurses. Their fight is a fight for the soul of public services in Ontario and by increasing their confidence to fight and win, we increase positive outcomes for the workers movement in Ontario. Now is the time to do what you can to build solidarity.
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