Live music, fiery speeches and a couple of brisk marches in the rain served to get hundreds of health care workers pumped up for what they see as a coming battle with both Parliament and Queen’s Park.
Unifor, Canada’s largest private sector union with more than 305,000 members, launched rallies in several Ontario cities on Nov. 6, including Sudbury, Sault Ste. Marie and London. Organizers said some 15 buses brought in union members and their supporters from across the province to the London rally where about 500 people gathered in Victoria Park.
The message being delivered, according to Fred Hahn, president of CUPE Ontario, is the wage freezes endured by health care workers need to be overturned. In their place, Hahn said, must be collective agreements that speak to the contributions made by health care workers on a daily basis.
“We are here today because we know, that like all public sector workers, workers in this system have been suffering from austerity from this government,” Hahn said. “Cuts, which affect our public health care system. A system we will defend.”
Hahn, along with other speakers such as Unifor’s National president Jerry Dias and Ontario Federation of Labour president Sid Ryan, were clearly firing up their union brothers and sisters.
Hahn said the rally on Thursday was only “the beginning of continuing to build up militancy and action.”
Patti Dalton, president of the London and District Labour Council, said is its “shameful” the way union members have had their wages frozen for several years.
The expectation is, Dalton said, that the federal government is purposefully underfunding health care in an effort to advance an agenda that would weaken the “fundamental right” of Canadians to universal health care.
“As you all know, the for-profit health care company wolves are standing at the door,” Dalton said. “The Harper government wants to swing that door wide open and start a feeding frenzy of privatization and preside over the destruction of our public health care system.”
The group eventually marched from Victoria Park to the constituency office of Deputy Premier and London North Centre MPP Deb Matthews. Matthews, who is also president of the Treasury Board, wasn’t in London at the time.
In a statement, Matthews said the provincial government “respects the collective bargaining process,” as well as the value of the work provided by employees in Ontario’s public service.
“We have made a commitment to balance the budget by 2017/18,” Matthews said. “All public‐sector partners will need to continue to work together to effectively manage compensation costs within Ontario’s existing fiscal framework.”
From Matthews’ office the crowd marched back to Victoria Park before heading to the constituency office of London North Centre MP Susan Truppe, who was in Ottawa at the time.
However, the message was sent nonetheless, according to Nancy McMurphy, president of Unifor Local 302.
The timing of the rallies in London and elsewhere weren’t arbitrary as McMurphy said there are approximately 17,000 health care workers whose collective agreements will be expiring by the end of this year.
The “purse strings are still remaining very tight,” McMurphy said, but now is the time to bring relief to front-line workers.
“Many of them are part-time workers; they are working two and three jobs to try and support their families,” McMurphy said. “They need to see an increase, they don’t want an arbitrated collective agreement, they want to negotiate an agreement, which we think is the way to go.”
McMurphy said the union always looks for a three-year collective agreement. And although there hasn’t been “a pattern established yet,” to reach an agreement, the expectation would be for a contract in the range of 4.8 percent over three years.
According to Unifor, the federal government has refused to “renegotiate and resign” the Canada Health Accord. The accord speaks to the federal contributions to provincial health care, something McMurphy said was once at a 50/50 split, but has slid to 86/14, placing an increasing burden on the provinces.
“The health accord puts stabilized funding across the provinces. Right now, with not having one signed, we are going to end up with a society of haves and have-nots,” McMurphy said. “We know more and more services are being privatized because the provinces can’t afford to have them in place. The system is broken and needs to be fixed"