Front-line staff in Ontario hospitals held a five-minute, in-hospital protest on Tuesday as their union continues its fight against the extension of the province’s emergency orders.
The Ontario Council of Hospital Unions, a division of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, said it does not want the province’s emergency order extended in its current form because their collective bargaining agreement will be suspended.
The Progressive Conservative government passed the bill into law Tuesday, allowing it to keep some emergency measures in place for up to two years.
“Our members feel as though the government telling us that the contribution of the health-care workforce was heroic was insincere if it’s followed by the withdrawal on a semi-permanent basis of our basic rights,” said union president Michael Hurley.
Hurley said staff have seen the times and locations of their shifts changed, which he said is particularly onerous when 80 to 85 per cent of the union’s membership is female and 35 per cent are the heads of single-parent households.
The union also said that with a suspended bargaining agreement, vacations can be cancelled or denied and outside employees can be hired to take work from staff with seniority.
“Do we really have to protest like this to recapture the basic rights that we have worked a long time to build?” said Hurley. “Is that going to be our reward for the service that we provided in this period?”
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Steven Barrett, a lawyer representing the union, said the language of the government’s legislation acknowledged that the state of emergency is over in the province.
“Cabinet is given the power to amend and extend orders, notwithstanding that there’s no declared emergency at all and the legislature has no oversight power,” said Barrett.
Health minister Christine Elliott announced 203 new cases of the novel coronavirus on Tuesday, but most of them were confined to three regions: Ottawa, Peel, and Windsor-Essex.
The union has said that if there is a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic it would support a reinstatement of emergency orders, as it did in March.
Christine Van Geyn, the litigation director for the Canadian Constitution Foundation, agrees with CUPE’s stance.
Van Geyn said Bill 195 is troubling because it limits broader civil liberties including freedom of assembly, freedom of movement, and freedom of religion because it restricts church gatherings.
“We have a situation where civil libertarians and union organization are both seeing major problems with a piece of legislation,” said Van Geyn.
“I think when those two groups are aligned the government has a problem.”
Tuesday’s brief interruption of work was the latest step in an escalating series of political actions organized by the union. On Friday, CUPE hospital workers staged rallies outside of hospitals across Ontario.
Health-care workers in Ontario do not have the right to strike and have a limited right to refuse unsafe work.
Hurley said the union is planning a legal challenge of the law.