Health and education

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submitted by Steve Gabell

An educated and healthy population are the basic requirements for a healthy economy and strong civic society. We all rely on our public education and healthcare systems, yet the Ford government seems intent on gutting them. Our healthcare system is in crisis, with multiple emergency departments across the province having to reduce their opening hours or even needing to close altogether at times due to staffing shortages. The ED at Kemptville District Hospital was closed for six nights over the Labour Day long weekend and our MPP did not even acknowledge this. Those EDs that are open are under ever increasing pressure, with patients waiting hours for assessment by a doctor and a shortage of beds, meaning many are treated in hallways. Paediatric EDs are being overwhelmed, with CHEO often reporting patients waiting over 12 hours to see a doctor for an initial assessment. Ambulances are also being affected, with delays in handing patients over having a knock-on effect on the availability of ambulances to respond to emergency calls. Even major cities, including Ottawa, have reported situations where no ambulances have been available to respond to calls.

One of the root causes of the crisis engulfing our hospitals is the decision by Ford to implement Bill 124 in 2019, which limited nurses and many other healthcare workers to 1% annual pay rises. Imagine spending the last two and half years working through an unprecedented pandemic and being rewarded with a miserly 1% increase at a time when inflation is running closer to double digits. Is it any wonder nurses do not want to work in Ontario EDs and are looking for alternative options? Fiona Jager, professor of nursing at St Lawrence College, reports that the current situation is even causing nursing students to reconsider their decisions.

Our education system is dependent on the vital work of many people. Teachers are important, but we also need librarians, custodians, early childhood educators, educational assistants, and many others to ensure our schools are safe spaces for our children and to support teachers too. These workers are woefully underpaid, earning an average of $39k a year according to their union, CUPE. Many must take on extra jobs to keep their heads above water and, in a fall 2021 survey, over 25% reported having to cut back on food. CUPE members have seen their wages eroded over the years and were seeking an above inflation raise. Ford’s response was to offer another miserly increase of 1.5 to 2%, which was marginally improved following CUPE’s announcement that they were in a legal strike position. The right to strike was hard won by unions and the labour movement and is the last resort in bargaining with an employer. It’s hardly surprising that CUPE members opted for strike action when they were offered a significant real terms pay cut. The province then decided to take a chainsaw to the Charter rights of education workers by taking the nuclear option of invoking the “notwithstanding clause”clause to implement a legislated contract and to ban CUPE members from striking – before they had even been on strike for a single day! This is an outrageous attack on the Constitutional rights of CUPE members and sets a dangerous precedent for negotiations with other unions. Unsurprisingly, unions, civil rights organizations, and opposition parties are up in arms at the casual way Ford has tried to strip workers of fundamental constitutional rights.

Ontario Greens fully support CUPE members in their negotiations for a fair pay settlement and their right to strike. No-one wants to see more disruption to children’s education, but this shouldn’t be achieved on the backs of the lowest paid members of staff. Doug Ford claims he is “for the workers”, but he has forced miserly pay rises on nurses and is stripping education workers of their rights and will continue to take this approach with other public service unions. Ontario is a rich province in a rich country. Ford has no problem finding money for his pet projects, like highway 413, or new prisons across the province, or the removal and refund of licence plate fees. 

Mike Schreiner and the Ontario Greens are continuing to call on Ford and Minister Lecce to return to the bargaining table with CUPE and to negotiate a fair settlement. We are also calling for electoral reform so that we never again have the situation where a government can be elected with the support of only 18% of the electorate.

 

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