The affordability crisis and privatization in the health care system were top of mind at this year’s Ontario Regional Council, held in Ottawa on Dec. 1 to 2.
Unifor Ontario Regional Director Samia Hashi said access to high-quality public health care is for everyone, not just the rich—which is why the union is fighting back against health care cuts and privatization.
“We see a [Doug Ford Conservative] government determined on starving a system to near collapse and then pretend to resuscitate it by privatizing it,” said Hashi.
Unifor National President Lana Payne, in her address to delegates, said the battle to protect public health care isn’t won in a day or a year, but a long game effort. As part of their organizing, health care workers represented by Unifor have stepped up their activism – whether by rallying in front of Queen's Park or negotiating fair contracts at the bargaining table.
“Public health care needs to be properly and adequately funded,” she said.
“Right now, thousands of Unifor hospital members are in bargaining against a government that still takes them for granted. Health care members saved us from the ravages of COVID and ight now are facing concessions at the bargaining table. This disrespect of our members in healthcare ends right now.”
The majority of the first morning was dedicated to the fight against privatization with keynote speaker Natalie Mehra, Executive Director of the Ontario Health Coalition. She made an urgent call to halt the privatization and under-resourcing of health care in the province.
Mehra said that Ford has tried to sell the public on privatized care using only OHIP cards, but patients have wound up pulling out their credit cards. Pointing out that Maple, a private health care company that is partially owned by Loblaw, charges for services that are covered by OHIP.
“If you go on to Maple to get an online doctor, they’ll send you a price list for access to a doctor,” said Mehra. “That’s illegal. In Canada, in Ontario…they’re flagrantly breaking the law and the Ford government is doing nothing about it.”
An update was provided on Unifor’s member-to-member campaign against health care privatization, which was born out of a resolution from last year’s ORC.
About 20 of the member-to-member organizers, carrying purple signs that read, “Stop health care privatization,” stood at the front of the room as Unifor National Representative Erin Harrison described the union’s health care campaign.
The initiatives include working with five health care unions, engaging with members in Ontario, and holding the provincial government accountable for privatization. So far, the campaign has personally connected with over 46,700 – or more than 25% of – Unifor members in the province.
Hashi said she will continue to put energy into listening to stories from members and fighting health care privatization. The path forward, she said, is we need Bills 135, 124 and 60 scrapped without appeals and more staff to reduce wait times and enhance services in health care.
“There are many more issues in our health care system than you could even imagine,” she said.
“It’s seniors getting upsold medical services they don’t need. It’s loved ones dying while they’re stuck on a wait list. That means taking bold, firm action in a sector where many don’t have the right to strike.”
The ORC and the national union are also contributing $50,000 towards working with the OHC to fight again health care privatization.
The relationship between collective bargaining and the affordability crisis was also highlighted at the council.
Sharlene Henry, a tenant activist and Unifor Local 1285 member, has been on a rent strike for seven months in the York-South Weston area of Toronto, after frustration over excessive rent increases above the allowable guidelines.
Through Sharlene’s Unifor PEL education and community involvement she has been leading the fight in her neighbourhood for fair and affordable rent for all, including organizing phone zaps, circulating petitions and displaying signs all over her apartment building.
“Housing is a human right,” she said.
“Everyone has the right to affordable and adequate housing that suits the needs of their specific family. The province of Ontario has the highest average rents in this country. A two-bedroom apartment on average is $2,486 a month, and in Toronto, it’s over $3,000. Many families work multiple jobs just to keep a roof over their heads.”
Payne told delegates there has never been a better time to support workers in all sectors. She said there have been significant victories this year, including at St. Lawrence Seaway, Ford, General Motors and Stellantis, and Metro.
This provides leverage for pattern bargaining in other sectors with expiring contracts, she noted.
“As a union, we are stepping up,” she said. “Because our members don’t need us to accept the status quo. They need us to lead. They need us to be clear about our demands as a union and to support them to get the best damn collective agreements possible.”
Payne said the union continues to fight for anti-scab legislation, to stand up against right-wing rhetoric from Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre and to keep forward momentum in all sectors – from rail to telecommunications, manufacturing to media, hospitality to health care.
“We are on fire,” said an excited Payne. “Life changing collective agreements. Historic strikes. And we are only getting started.”
Unifor National Secretary-Treasurer Len Poirier devoted space to some of the campaigns this year, particularly in telecommunications and transportation, such as the Air Transportation Workers’ Charter of Rights and the Safe Rates Campaign.
He provided delegates with an update on the union’s finances, his bold vision for a vibrant economic future with good union jobs, and Unifor’s vital work to achieve social justice.
This year, Unifor has donated $395,000 to food banks, women and refugee shelters across Canada, but the fund also supports international projects.
“The social work our union does is tremendous, and this should give each one of you a sense of pride knowing that as hard as we work to make our members working conditions better, Unifor also stands for making our communities better,” said Poirier.
Ayan Holland was elected to Ontario Regional Council as Member at Large, Maria Chinelli for the Political Action position and Cheri Deguire for the Health and Safety spot.
Paige Maylott from Local 5555 at McMaster University was also elected for the position on the LGBT Committee. Maylott is the first trans member elected to any of Unifor’s regional committees across the country.
The union’s equity work and the need to do more was also highlighted.
ORC Chair Shinade Allder acknowledged day one of the council fell on the same day that Rosa Parks, a Black woman, was arrested in Montogomery, AL, for respectfully not giving up her seat on a bus to a white man in 1955.
The Canadian counterpart to that story was eight years before then, Allder said. On Nov. 8, 1946, Viola Desmond, a Black Canadian businesswoman, confronted anti-Black racism by refusing to move from her seat in the “whites only” section of the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow, N.S.
“As Canadians, we must address the untold stories, the contributions made to make this country equitably by people of colour,” said Allder.
“The purpose for me sharing the story of these two women of empowerment is because I'm humbled and grateful to be part of a union that welcomes diversity and fights for what is right. This is Unifor’s 10-year anniversary, and we truly are a union for everyone.”
Elder Terry McKay shared his experience as a residential school survivor, while Gina Smoke, Unifor National Representative for Indigenous Relations, urged delegates to champion a Resolution to support the families of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirited persons (MMIWG2S).
She implored them to attend upcoming events such as the Tears to Hope relay and No More Stolen Sisters and to keep pressing the Manitoba government to search a Winnipeg landfill for Indigenous women’s remains.
“It’s horrible that we have to have these events,” said Smoke, “but I am so grateful for Unifor and its members give to our families, because without the support, you feel like you’re alone sometimes. Building this awareness is huge because, hopefully, it will stop some of the loss of our families.”
In her speech, Hashi passionately conveyed her background being a refugee from war-torn Eritrea, East Africa – a country with one of the worst human rights records in the world – to Canada with her family when she was six.
“I’m incredibly thankful for my life here in Canada, for my mom’s courage, and for this opportunity to be part of what I know will be an epic year for workers in Ontario,” she said.
Hashi implored delegates to use their power and to call for an end to the war between Israel and Palestine and to enact a permanent ceasefire. She said despite how things may seem on social media, “there is far more that unites us than divides us.”
Payne reinforced the world is hurting right now, even right at home in Canada, and there’s a need to rebuild.
“Our world is at war,” she said.
“We must use our voices to demand peace and justice now. In this moment…It is so important that as trade unionists, we work to build hope and love and solidarity in response.”
On the second day of the council, Auto workers joined a panel discussion to discuss ways to improve representation of women in a historically male-dominated field, the personal impacts of the electric vehicle (EV) transition, and ways workers are showing up for one another on the plant floor and beyond.
A number of Resolutions were adopted, including a wider campaign to shine a public light on the Metroland Media’s recent closures of 70 community papers across southern Ontario.
The company laid off 605 media workers, including 106 Unifor Local 87-M as it seeks protection under the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act as part of a restructuring plan.
“I’m going to push this union’s leadership and all of you to do more, so that we protect local newspapers,” said affected Local 87-M member and journalist Hunter Crowther.
“Because democracy does not die in darkness. It dies in plain sight for all to see and don’t let that happen to us.”
To close off the first day of the council in a powerful way, Unifor’s Employee and Family Assistance Program committee members participated in performance art on stage that illustrated the isolation that those who are experiencing mental health issues may feel.
A man wearing a white t-shirt stood silently as people would speak about anxiety, panic attacks and suicide issues aloud as they smeared the clothing with a painted handprint to illustrate that mental health are real issues in workplaces, and members don’t need to suffer alone because Unifor has crisis resources to help.
Amanda Fox performed an Indigenous dance while outfitted in a jingle dress – made of metal cones to represent tears – to symbolize healing.
The council honoured members who died over the past year, including Anna Grizans, of Unifor Local 229, who was a fearless advocate for women, the 2SLGBTQIA+ and Indigenous communities, and served on ORC’s Aboriginal & Worker of Colour standing committee.
Tribute was also paid to the 14 women killed in the École Polytechnique massacre on Dec. 6, 1989, in Montreal, as the women’s committee asked delegates to hold a moment of silence. They asked for the lights to be dimmed while electronic tealight candles flickered on tables and delegates held up lit cellphones.