The COVID-19 pandemic has made it clearer than ever that the lives and basic rights of working class people are expendable in the eyes of capital and our political leadership. But in the past couple of weeks, examples from Ontario and Ottawa have demonstrated how this crisis is intensifying the attack on working people and their Charter rights.
At Queen’s Park in Toronto, Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives are stubbornly refusing to implement paid sick days, and on Parliament Hill, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals are threatening back-to-work legislation against striking labourers at the Port of Montreal.
The Ford story is much higher in profile, because the entire province of Ontario is rightfully seething at the premier and his cabinet for utterly failing to protect workers and their families as they suffer and die from COVID without paid sick days. This is accompanied by the fact that Ford and company are shutting down public spaces with minimal risk while keeping dangerous workplaces operating as usual. As a result, the child of a Brampton-based essential warehouse worker—13-year-old Emily Victoria Viegas—died of COVID-19, and Health Minister Christine Elliott had the gall to say that the municipality was already getting all the support its “entitled to.” This government is literally killing workers and their children while shrugging its shoulders in ambivalence.
And the promise of a paid sick day program from Ford’s PCs? It turns out they want a federal program that won’t ensure workers have quick access to sick pay to cover their day-to-day expenses—which is the primary reason workers show up on the job sick. They want this program, not because they have a good faith belief that it will work best for those who need it, but because they don’t want capitalists to have any commitment to provide basic sick leave to their workers. In essence, they want full taxpayer subsidization of what should be offered by the bosses. As ONDP leader Andrea Horwath said, “access to paid sick days… must be immediate, seamless, and without barriers.” This can only realistically come directly from employers.
Certainly, Ford and his cadre of ghouls never gave a damn about the working class, but in this moment of crisis their cruelty is on full display. And as workers die on the altar of capital, the Tories stand by doing nothing even though the opposition has offered multiple opportunities to support functional legislation.
But while Ford has garnered the lion’s share of rage in recent weeks, Trudeau and his government are quietly launching an attack on another group of essential working class Canadians. Over the weekend, Minister of Labour Filomena Tassi announced that the government was introducing back-to-work legislation against CUPE Local 375 workers at the Port of Montreal who had yet to even start full strike action (which began on Monday morning). Predictably, the Liberals said they support the collective bargaining process, but that this strike would be too disruptive to the wider economy. Tassi even directly cited the pandemic as a contributing factor for crushing the strike, saying that “The current work stoppage at the Port is causing significant and potentially long-lasting harm to Canada’s economy, and is adding stress to supply chains already under significant strain due to #COVID19.”
This morning our government has given notice of legislation titled “An Act to Provide for the Resumption and Continuation of Operations at the Port of Montreal.”— Filomena Tassi (@FilomenaTassi) April 25, 2021
Let’s be clear: this is every bit as disgusting an attack on essential workers during a pandemic as we’ve been seeing from Ford at the provincial level. It spits on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, in which striking is protected as a basic human right. The federal government’s response is especially galling because the legislation was introduced before a single picket was set up, showing that the Liberals won’t even tolerate the rights of workers being expressed for a short moment. This is the essential cog of the Ford-Trudeau tandem. While Ford allows mega corporations like Amazon to kill workers for record pandemic profits provincially, Trudeau forces essential workers into unsafe conditions as they risk their lives for the wider economy.
Indeed, the port workers are not making lavish demands. As Ricochet editor Ethan Cox notes, they are simply demanding an end to their employer’s unilateral effort to increase the length of their shifts. In his words: “Let’s get this straight: The Trudeau government is introducing back-to-work legislation that will force workers at the port to work shifts that are over 30% longer. If a worker dies or is injured as a result, the blood will be on Trudeau’s hands.”
Let's get this straight: The Trudeau government is introducing back-to-work legislation that will force workers at the port to work shifts that are over 30% longer. If a worker dies or is injured as a result, the blood will be on Trudeau's hands. #cdnpoli https://t.co/uHXOpZUl5m— Ethan Cox (@EthanCoxMtl) April 26, 2021
These longer shifts will almost certainly increase the risk of injury, especially in the context of a pandemic. Ultimately, this back-to-work legislation isn’t about economic security: it’s about Trudeau forcing workers into an arrangement which basically gives the employer 100 percent of what it wants and takes all leverage away from essential workers.
Certainly, Ford and Trudeau are not the only COVID villains in this country. Jason Kenney and so many others have allowed workers to suffer and die in the pursuit of profit-centred policies, and even the British Columbia NDP government has utterly failed to meet the needs of workers, with Premier John Horgan continuing, like Ford, to resist implementing paid sick days and other crucial worker protections (not to mention programs like pharmacare). This has been a broad failure by Canada’s pollical class.
Still, Ford and Trudeau, as leaders of Canada’s largest jurisdictions, have among the most power, and can do the most good. Instead, they have chosen to sacrifice workers and trample on their rights when they need help the most.
Christo Aivalis is political writer and commentator with a PhD in History. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Globe and Mail, Maclean’s, and Passage. He can be found daily on YouTube and at his new podcast Left Turn, Canada.