Doug Ford’s Conservative government has failed the people of Ontario. At every stage of the pandemic Ford has put profits before people, with dire consequences for Ontarians.
Ford campaigned on a promise to stand up for the “little guy” against the elites. But once elected he aggressively pushed a big business agenda, making cuts to public services, rolling back regulations and attacking workers. Ford’s attack on workers was an escalation, but hardly unique. Successive Liberal and Conservative governments in the province have pursued policies that have squeezed workers, attacked the poor and left public services like healthcare in a weakened state going into the pandemic. COVID-19 has has not only exacerbated the existing inequities and inequalities in our province, it has also shown the lengths to which the Conservatives and the big business lobby will go to maintain them.
But it has not been the government or the big business lobby that has seen us through the worst of COVID-19. It has been Ontario’s workers at the forefront of the pandemic, providing care, education, food, emergency support and more. Many of these frontline workers have gotten seriously ill, died or lost co-workers, friends and family members – disproportionately from racialized communities.
To defeat Ford and build a better post-pandemic world, we must put workers first now. Concretely this means laying out a workers’ first agenda and organizing in our workplaces and our communities.
Kill Bills 124 and 195
Even before the pandemic, healthcare and public service workers were overworked and undervalued despite their essential and life saving work. Ford campaigned on a promise to listen to healthcare workers, but instead he enacted wage suppression for public sector workers via Bill 124.
This bill gives public sector employers permission to violate collective agreements and bargaining rights for unionized workers. The bill is designed to limit the increase in total compensation, wages plus benefits, in a collective agreement to 1% per year. This tiny 1% increase did not keep up with inflation before the pandemic and now lags well behind the rising inflation we currently face.
The bill has an outsized impact on women, as public sector education and care work are overwhelmingly women-dominated fields of employment. Racialized women disportionately work as PSWs, Early Childhood Educators, and nutritional aides, who have been negatively impacted by the wage suppression of Bill 124.
Healthcare workers who have been impacted by Bill 124 have been sounding the alarm and have not backed down since the bill passed. Rallies, press conferences, email actions and phone campaigns have been organized by healthcare workers, the Ontario Nurses Association (ONA), the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions/Canadian Union of Public Employees (OCHU/CUPE), SEIU Healthcare and Unifor.
But Ford has doubled down. Four months after the start of the pandemic the Conservatives passed Bill 195, Reopening Ontario (A Flexible Response to COVID-19) Act 2020. Much like Bill 124, it gave employers the right to violate collective agreements for unionized workers, allowing them to deny vacation time and leaves, change hours of work, give workers reassignments and more. In response to Bill 195, OCHU/CUPE organized the Restore Our Rights campaign, which includes a social media campaign, an email action and with the support of the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL), organized rallies at MPP offices. The ONA also launched telephone town halls and an email action.
As the pandemic continues we are seeing increasing staffing shortages in the healthcare sector and witnessing life saving surgeries and procedures being put on hold. This has had devastating and deadly impacts for Ontario communities. Bill 124 and Bill 195 only exacerbate the staffing crisis: increasing numbers of healthcare workers are leaving due to burnout, disrespect and low pay, and the government’s heavy-handed treatment of workers leaves little incentive for people to enter the healthcare sector.
Both bills are a huge slap in the face from the Ford government to healthcare and public service workers who have put their lives on the line. Bill 124 and Bill 195 must be repealed and Ontario workers need to see an investment of new money into healthcare to better support workers and keep our communities safe.
Paid sick days for all
Only 58% of workers have access to permanent, employer-paid sick days. In 2017 workers in Ontario closed the gap with two permanent, employer-paid sick days, which were legislated in the Employment Standards Act as part of Bill 148. Ford never announced his intentions to scrap these days before his election, but did just that after he was elected. This directly undermined the ability of essential workers to stay home sick during COVID-19, which fueled the pandemic.
Despite this setback, the organizing for paid sick days by groups like the Decent Work and Health Network, the Workers Action Centre, the Justice for Workers campaign, labour unions and community members continued. Ongoing pressure for paid sick days in the form of protests, car caravans, phone zaps, petitions, townhalls and emails resulted in overwhelming public support.
This organizing forced the Ford government to respond. While Ford started his term cutting two paid sick days, he was forced to reverse course and promise “the best paid sick days in North America.” The resulting three paid sick days helped workers access the early vaccination. But the program, the Workers Income Protection Benefit, remains inadequate. First, three sick days is not enough for workers scrambling to self-isolate if they or a family member got sick. For many workers, not being able to go to work means not being able to pay rent or being able to buy groceries for themselves and/or their family. The result, as new data shows, is that essential workers from predominantly racialized communities have had difficulty accessing the crucial third dose of the vaccine. Secondly, Ford’s paid sick day program is temporary and ignores that illnesses and diseases exist outside of and beyond COVID-19. Ontario workers needed paid sick days before the pandemic and will surely need them after the pandemic is over. Thirdly, these sick days are not not only paid by government funds but administered by the private firm Deloitte. So rather than closing the gap in paid sick days by making all employers provide paid sick days, the public is subsidizing those employers whose denial of paid sick days fueled the pandemic – and millions more are being given to a private firm.
As illustrated by the Decent Work and Health Network, all workers need access to 10 permanent and employer-paid sick days, plus 2 weeks during public health emergencies. It is no surprise that the workers who are most likely to not have access to paid sick days are low income and racialized workers who are also more likely to come in contact with COVID-19. So it is absolutely necessary that migrant workers, gig workers and temp agency workers are included and that no worker is left behind. Paid sick days are a racial justice issue and as the momentum for paid sick days continues to build, workers and community members have been joining the fight by attending the Justice for Workers organizing meetings hosted by the Ontario Federation of Labour and Workers Action Centre.
Many of the frontline workers who have seen us through the pandemic by providing essential services – like grocery shopping, transportation, cleaning and food delivery – are misclassified as “self-employed” or “independent contractors”. These workers don’t have access to basic protections and rights through the Employment Standards Act. This means gig workers and other misclassified workers are at the whim of their employer. These workers often don’t get paid for all the hours they work, have no recourse if their hours are cut, pay is reduced or if they are fired.
For gig workers and other misclassified workers that lack of access to worker’s compensation, paid sick days, or employer-funded benefit plans means having almost no financial security. When these workers are ill or get hurt on the job, they are left to fend for themselves. If the company they work for picks up and leaves, like Foodora did after a union drive, workers are left holding the bag. Misclassification has also allowed wage theft to run rampant in the trucking industry, a legitimate economic grievance of truck drivers that the right-wing ‘freedom convoy’ has tried to exploit for its own reasons.
With his sights on the next election, Ford is trying to return to his populist rhetoric that got him elected by promising to put workers first. But instead of ending misclassification and including all workers in the ESA, the Conservatives are trying to codify a substandard set of labour standards for gig workers, allowing misclassification to flourish. The Gig Worker Bill of Rights put forward by Gig Workers United and the OFL is a welcome advance in the struggle to ensure all workers have access to ESA protections.
$20 minimum wage
For years workers in Ontario have been underpaid despite the high cost of living in the province. One of Doug Ford’s first acts upon assuming office in 2018 was to halt the scheduled minimum wage increase to $15 an hour on January 1, 2019. This was a boon for big business and left Ontario’s workers further behind and less prepared for the economic fallout of the pandemic.
Throughout the beginning of the pandemic, several employers–including opponents to the higher minimum wage like Loblaws–implemented “Hero Pay” or “pandemic pay”, which was a $2 increase in workers’ hourly wage. This increase was very much welcomed by workers, especially those working on the frontlines of the pandemic. However, these same employers took away the temporary pay hike despite Ontario being in the midst of the pandemic. The pandemic has seen an explosion in wealth inequality. Canada’s billionaires have seen their wealth grow by over $78 billion, while employers have received billions of dollars in public subsidies and handouts. Meanwhile workers are experiencing a rising cost of living.
But continued organizing from the Fight for $15 and Fairness and the newly revamped Justice for Workers campaign, pushed the Ford Government to increase minimum wage to $15 on January 1, 2022. While a $15 minimum wage is too late, as it would have been $15.75 an hour if Ford hadn’t stopped the increase in 2019, the increase is still a welcome advance for workers. Like the partial reforms on paid sick days, it shows that mass movements can challenge Ford, begin to reverse his agenda and gain confidence to raise bolder demands.
Workers in Ontario deserve at least a $20 minimum wage. Increasing the wage floor and removing exemptions would put more money into workers pockets, empower workers to fight for higher standards and transfer billions of dollars from big business into the pockets of the working class and our communities.
Make it easier to join a union
All workers – including migrant workers, gig workers and temp agency workers – deserve the right to join a union and to do so through a fair, equitable and timely process.
Too often employers use intimidation tactics like harassing and firing workers because they find out an organizing drive is taking place in the workplace. Employers are also known for spreading misinformation about unions. A common lie that workers are told is that the company will go bankrupt if a union is formed. Through making workers fearful that they will lose their jobs or be treated poorly by management for supporting a union, employers are deliberately interfering in the democratic process of a union potentially forming in the workplace. These disruptions can result in low voter turn out or an unsuccessful organizing drive.
Employers try their hardest to block union organizing in workplaces because they know the strength workers have when they realize their power and when they join a union. Workers deserve a fair, equitable and timely process where they are able to make a decision on whether they want to join a union without fear of judgement or repercussion.
Protections for temp workers, injured workers and migrant workers
In the fall of 2021 the Conservatives passed Bill 27, which promised to protect temp workers and migrant workers via the licensing of recruiters and the licensing of temporary help agencies. In this regard the bill is far from sufficient. There needs to be stronger enforcement, fines, a large security for those seeking a licence, joint and several liability for employers when it comes to compliance for the use of unlicensed recruiters, a registry of employers that hire workers with temporary work permits, joint and several liability for employers using temp workers and a mechanism for workers to make anonymous complaints about violations.
All workers deserve equal pay for equal work and access to full health and safety protections.
Bill 27 also allows the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) to distribute surplus funds to the province’s businesses once the insurance fund’s sufficiency ratio reaches 115 per cent. As it stands this would represent a transfer over $3 billion from the WSIB fund to employers. The fund should be used to help injured workers, not transfer wealth to business. Not only must this be repealed, we need to ensure the needs of injured workers are being put before the interest of businesses.
Fund public services
From healthcare to childcare, and from education and social services to public transportation, everyone in Ontario deserves well funded and accessible public services. Over the years, cuts made to publicly funded services by the Conservative and Liberal governments paved the way for the COVID-19 crisis. Hospital overcrowding, staffing crises, and worker burnout were already widespread before the pandemic, and privatization made the pandemic worse. There is clear evidence that private long-term care homes had higher mortality rates, so many deaths from COVID-19 were avoidable. We cannot go back and change the past, but we can organize and advocate for public dollars to be invested in public services now.
Ford has done the opposite, from continuing to to push for privatization in long-term care, to refusing to sign onto the federal childcare plan. Privatization of public services will never be the answer. But there is a real opportunity to bring in universal and affordable childcare in the province, invest in transit and reinvest in healthcare. We need to start making robust investments that can uplift our communities and ensure everyone has access to their basic needs.
Taking on Ford
If we want to take on the Ford agenda and the big business lobby we have to build a real alternative for workers. It is not enough to say Ford mishandled the pandemic. We need to fight for an agenda that will improve the lives of workers and their communities across the province, starting right now and continuing beyond the election.
This means doing more than waiting until election day to vote Ford out, it requires us to actively organize in our workplaces and communities. The OFL’s vision statement and action plan of a workers’ first agenda outlines what our working class movement must fight for a just recovery, justice for workers, healthy and safe workplaces, equity, racial justice and real reconciliation, universal, accessible and well-funded public services and climate justice and a livable planet.
But vision statements and action plans are just pieces of paper. It is up to us, rank and file workers, to seize the opportunity contained within them to build a movement that can advance a workers’ agenda and defeat Ford.
This is why we encourage all workers and community members to attend the OFL’s March 6th Activist Assembly. This is an opportunity to build concrete local activity around the issues impacting us and our communities and to plan for a bigger May 1st rally. To make this successful each of us needs to be an organizer. We need to invite our coworkers, fellow union members, friends, neighbours and family to the meeting. We need to help build the meeting, participate, encourage others to do so and to play a role in uniting people to take action from it. This is how we put workers’ first and defeat Ford.
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