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Health care workers unite to fight Ford

Michelle Robidoux

February 13, 2024
In a strong show of unity, three major healthcare unions – OCHU/CUPE, SEIU Healthcare and Unifor – filled the street outside the Sheraton Centre in Toronto on February 6th, vowing to step up the fight against Ford's assault on healthcare. The three unions, representing 70,000 hospital workers in Ontario, are entering bargaining with the province amidst an unprecedented crisis in the healthcare system.
The protest drew busloads of people from across southern Ontario, including members of ONA, Steelworkers and OPSEU, as well as activists from community health coalitions.
By deliberately underfunding and understaffing hospitals, Ford is creating the conditions to carry out wholesale privatization of surgeries and diagnostics – a process which the government has vowed to accelerate in the coming months.
In this context workers face a tough round of bargaining with the Ontario Hospital Association, which is pushing austerity and concessions. In a joint media release, the union coalition demanded that the Ontario government and OHA find the desperately needed funding to save hospitals and improve patient care, including embedding staffing ratios in the contract. Working conditions in the sector are so bad that exhaustion and burnout have led to a 300 per cent increase in job vacancies since 2015. Yet the government is sitting on $1.5 billion of unspent healthcare funding.
Union leaders vowed to escalate the fight to save our hospitals and improve working conditions and patient care. Speaking at the rally, Michael Hurley, president of OCHU, said that members were asked for "a mandate for action to defend healthcare, to defend the people on the stretchers… We are going to be their defenders because if we the people who work in the hospitals will not stand up for them, who will? We will fight for them."
As Sarah Correia of SEIU Healthcare stated in a press release, "Hospital staff are coming together to defend access to patient care, yet hospital executives are going to implement Doug Ford’s austerity agenda that defunds our hospitals so wealthy investors can open for-profit clinics. Our three unions are drawing a line in the sand and showing solidarity to each other and to the people on the frontline of care. People deserve better, so together we’re going to fight for better.”
Healthcare worker bargaining comes at a time when a major mobilization is being prepared by the Ontario Health Coalition, to stop Ford's privatization of hospital surgeries and diagnostics. The Coalition is planning a major mobilization at Queen's Park in May and will deploy a mass door-to-door effort to deepen and widen the reach of the campaign.
This builds on the successful citizens referendum last May, where 400,000 people voted in person and online, and last September's mass demonstration at Queen's Park which drew close to 10,000 people including buses from cities and towns across Ontario. Crucially, the protest drew large contingents from the major unions.
The community campaign and the healthcare workers' fight need each other – and need to work in lockstep. As Michael Hurley told the Ontario Health Coalition Action Assembly in January, "the union can't on its own fight this privatization." Similarly, the community-led campaigns need the power of organized workers who are the frontline defenders of these services.
Instead of multiplying healthcare campaigns for each separate union, there needs to be a synergy between existing mobilizations rooted in the workplace and backed by the broader labour movement – like the February 6 rally – and the OHC call for a mass show of force uniting workers and communities in May at Queen's Park.
The conditions are ripe to escalate the fight. Ontarians have seen how 3/4 of Covid deaths in long-term care were in private establishments, showing the criminal neglect of Ford's policies of privatization and the consequence of sucking money out of the public system and diverting it to windfall profits for stakeholders. It was such an unmitigated disaster that they brought the army in. Now Ford is extending these private LTC homes' licenses for 30 more years.
Recent reports reveal that private clinics are being paid more than double what public hospitals get for the same surgeries, and that former Health Minister Christine Elliott presided over a 278% funding increase to Don Mills Surgical while she was minister, before becoming a lobbyist for its parent company Clearpoint. As the stench of corruption and unfettered profiteering off public healthcare grows, so is the anger at Ford.
The scope and breathtaking speed at which the privatization of hospital services is now unfolding is extraordinary. But it is important to remember that the Ford government has had to proceed by lies, deception and stealth – for a very simple reason: the majority of people strongly support a public system and know the catastrophic consequences of allowing the dismantling of what has taken generations to build.
And pressure from below means they have been pushed back from their originally planned roll-out of private clinics in September 2023, to April 1st.
Ford has no mandate from the last election to carry out the massive destruction they are undertaking. It is vital that we seize the moment to create an indivisible fight, in the community and in the workplace, to stop Ford.

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