Waving flags and chanting, “public health care,” Unifor members braved the -30C windchill to march in Thunder Bay to send a strong message to the Ontario government to stop cutting services and privatizing health care.
Over 100 Unifor members, along with supporters from Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the Ontario Nurses’ Association (ONA), rallied Feb. 24 in front of St. Joseph Care Group on Algoma St. N. as a precursor to Unifor’s two-day Northern Ontario Leadership Meeting (NOLM).
“There’s no question in my mind, if we turn over the ownership and control of our public hospitals to the private-for-profit clinics, we will lose our single-tier public health care system in this country,” said Kelly-Anne Orr, Unifor Assistant to the National Officers.
“We will not be able to stop user fees and we will not be able control the industry. We already face the most impossible challenge – to regulate for-profit in the long-term care industry and if we allow this to happen, it will be the peril of our foundation of our principles of our health care system: the right to equal access based on need and not based on how wealthy you are.”
Orr said Ontario Premier Doug Ford is rolling out a coordinated campaign, mass-marketed with the message that patients will only pay with their health card, that staff will not be transferred from public hospitals and that patients will have faster access to health care.
“It’s all untrue,” she said. “These messages are designed to confuse and soften public opposition. There is no question that there is a coordinated movement in Ontario, among all the Conservative-led provinces in this country, to privatize health care. We’ve seen it with Mike Harris privatizing home care and long-term care and now, the Ford government is finishing it off by privatizing the public hospitals.”
Representatives from the Thunder Bay Health Coalition, ONA, SEIU, as well as NDP Thunder Bay-Superior North MPP Lise Vaugeois spoke at the demonstration.
“[The Ford government] are setting things up so that large, multi-national corporations can come in here and make money off people when they are most vulnerable, it’s criminal,” said Vaugeois.
“They keep talking about the thousands of nurses they’ve hired. Have we seen any of those? Not one. [Health care workers] are so understaffed and exhausted, they’ve seen their peers leave because the government has refused to remove Bill 124 and hire the staff needed and pay them respectful wages.”
The spotlight on Ontario and Canada’s health care crisis continued at the Unifor Northern Ontario Leadership Meeting, which took place Feb. 24-25 in Thunder Bay, Ont.
Ontario Regional Director Naureen Rizvi kept the conversation on health care privatization and the need to mobilize not just union members, but their families and communities.
“People don’t care about the word, ‘privatization,’ not when they have to get to a doctor, not when they’re waiting for surgery for two years, not when their loved ones or children or spouses need care or access,” said Rizvi.
“As long as they don’t get charged, they’re golden. But we know that over time, privatization is going to destroy the system. And you will have charges, you just have to look down south to know that’s the case.”
She added the end result is that the health care system built on equal access which Canadians pride themselves on crumbles.
Later, Rizvi, Orr, and Unifor Local 229 President Kari Jefford expanded on the health care issue during a fireside chat, where members shared their own experiences.
“There is a huge opportunity for us to get gains,” said Jefford. “We get calls from members who are in crisis, who are angry, who are suffering…workers are tired and burnt out. It doesn’t matter what sector you’re in, people are feeling that. People don’t mobilize when they’re content, we can mobilize people when they’re angry.”
In her address to the participants at NOLM, Ontario Regional Council Chair Shinade Allder acknowledged that while February is Black History Month there are opportunities to celebrate and teach Black history year-round.
Allder spoke about how local Black Indigenous Workers of Colour (BIWOC) standing committee members have been involved in new programming that empowers Black youth, providing them skills taught by Black and Indigenous community leaders.
Unifor National Secretary-Treasurer Len Poirier told the NOLM participants that over 80,000 members have collective agreements that are expiring this year – the union's 10th anniversary.
He also reiterated the union’s criticism of the Bank of Canada interest rate increases, as well as companies who are “drowning in profit” on the backs of workers.
“It should come as no surprise the sectors with the strongest increase in profits were also the source of the fastest price increases – products like gasoline, groceries, mortgages and building materials,” said Poirier.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know we have a big problem when so much of our economy is going to rich shareholders rather than the workers.”
Retiring Unifor National Representative Gary Bragnalo said it was inspiring to see that NOLM has grown to the size it is, with members coming to attend from all over Ontario.
“Without [leadership] support, we wouldn’t be here, telling the stories and talking about what’s going on in our workplaces, so we could all get together,” he said.