By Doug Nesbitt
On Monday March 16, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ontario Premier Doug Ford delivered press conferences on the crisis only to confirm that it’s business as usual for these silver-spooned sons of comfort. Hopes for emergency safety net measures were dashed, along with the prospect of such measures counter-acting the spread of Covid-19.
Despite calls from across the country for paid sick days and necessary EI improvements, neither Ford nor Trudeau were ready to help workers. Nor was there any movement on waiving Employment Insurance wait times and seriously improving of EI’s low eligibility rates.
Millions of workers have no paid sick days or EI access, and about half of Canadians are surviving paycheque to paycheque. Once again, the working and poor majority are being set up to pay the price.
Nothing for us, billions for them
About 23 million people live in the provinces and territories without paid sick days. Federal workers have three and Quebec workers have two. PEI has just one – but you have to work five years at the same job to qualify.
One reason some people thought Ford and Trudeau might deliver relief was Alberta Premier Jason Kenney introducing fourteen paid sick days in response to Covid-19. But Kenney’s offer is a deal with the devil, as his government presses ahead with plans to sack between 4,900 and 5,900 healthcare workers, and decimate the public healthcare system with cuts and privatization.
Doug Ford famously repealed Ontario’s 2 paid sick days within ten months of them becoming law. He did so openly at the behest of powerful business groups. In a similar spirit, Nova Scotia’s Labour Minister has rejected labour’s calls for emergency paid sick days, saying he believed employers would use their “common sense” in how they handled the emergency!
No paid sick days means business doesn’t share its profits, but Trudeau’s Bay Street finance minister Bill Morneau has seen fit to extend a $10 billion line of credit to businesses. It’s a sick replay of what we saw after the last big crash in 2008. Business gets the gold, workers get the shaft.
Taking matters into our own hands
But bosses and politicians aren’t having the last word. With politicians taking a hands-off towards business practices, battles big and small are brewing between employees and management. Workers are taking matters into their own hands.
On Thursday March 12, hundreds of Windsor autoworkers walked off the job at the Fiat-Chrysler assembly over concerns about an infected worker and the health conditions of the plant. By Saturday, work refusals and union pressure forced the Ford government to reluctantly shut down Ontario’s casinos.
In Saskatchewan, the nurses’ union has called the ruling Sask Party’s entire Covid-19 plan disorganized. But it’s not just incompetence that plagues Premier Scott Moe’s government. His government convened an education sector emergency planning meeting and chose not to invite the Saskatchewan Teachers Federation which represents the province’s K-12 teachers. This snub comes after STF’s 90% strike vote on February 24. The Sask Party’s message to teachers seems to be “drop dead”.
In the privatized sector, the Canadian Union of Public Employees is raising the alarm about insufficient hand sanitizer, masks and gloves for Air Canada cabin crews. The employer even sent a memo to staff saying they were exempt from two-week self-isolation precautions for people traveling abroad. The president of CUPE’s Air Canada component says the policy is “inexplicably dangerous, short-sighted, and ignorant to the health of thousands of flight attendants who continue to work through these extremely trying times.”
In Ingersoll, Ontario, Unifor Local 88 is taking the unprecedented step of demanding a minimum two weeks layoff for all 2,000 General Motors workers at the CAMI auto assembly. The union’s Unit 1 chairperson Mike Van Boekel says “If a layoff looks unavoidable in April or May, then let’s be proactive and bring it forward now and try to help stop the spread of the virus.”
Italian lockdown, Italian strikes
All these disputes in Canada echo the conditions that have created the major strike wave now sweeping Italy. Thousands of workers are walking out against the callous actions of employers and their de facto exemptions from government emergency measures. Workers are determined not to die for profits.
After the Italian government declared a national lockdown to stop the virus spreading, millions of private sector workers were expected to risk infection in manufacturing, steel, logistics, supermarkets and other industries. On March 10, anger at these employer expectations exploded with a walkout at a Fiat auto plant near Naples. Soon after, a second Fiat autoworker strike forced Fiat to shut down entirely.
Within a couple days, strikes spread to numerous workplaces, including Venice’s shipyards and Genoa’s docks. By Thursday, a wildcat strike rolled through the metal trades in northern Italy. Many strikes have happened completely independent of union leadership, while other unions have moved intelligently and quickly to declare permanent work refusals. Now the employers and government are finally beginning to negotiate new emergency policies that are favourable to workers and the battle against Covid-19.
They’re not in this with us
On the frontline of this crisis, Italian healthcare workers have almost no choice but to keep working as they wage a war against a virus that is now taking hundreds of lives each day. Italy’s public healthcare system has been totally overwhelmed and broken. As one Italian doctor put it, “It’s not a wave. It’s a tsunami.”
If Canadians think Italy’s public healthcare system wasn’t up to the task, it has more hospital beds per capita than we do. And large provinces like Ontario, BC and Alberta are below the Canadian average.
From coast to coast, hospitals are bursting at the seams, operating year after year near or above capacity. Chronic staffing shortages plague long-term care and other healthcare sectors. Poverty wages, privatization and profiteering permeate home care, long-term care and various contracted-out healthcare services. This is the grim state of Canadian healthcare.
And while Jason Kenney remains the only politician so far to introduce new paid sick days, he’s only the latest politician to follow a four-decade agenda of strangling, slashing and carving up the healthcare system.
The politicians refusing paid sick days are the ones who have inherited the political parties and business agendas that created the crisis of “hallway medicine” long before anyone had even heard of the Coronavirus.
At his press conference, Doug Ford said “we’re all in this together.” But it’s pretty damn clear the political establishment and the business class have no interest in actually living up to this creed. They’re in it for themselves and they’re not willing to part with their wealth to help us combat Covid-19’s spread.
The only way it’s going to happen is by flattening the bosses and politicians. Then we can flatten the curve on our terms, and flatten it sooner instead of later.