A health-care worker at a COVID-19 testing site replaces her gown and mask. Image: Mat Napo/Unsplash

After the 2021 snap election coincided with an emerging fourth wave of COVID-19, one union leader fears the country’s health-care system is in a deeper crisis than it was before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the election.

Linda Silas, President of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Union (CFNU), believes the lack of urgency when it came to campaigning on health care sent a clear message to union leaders to expect more of the status quo.

In an interview with rabble.ca, Silas says it’s even becoming more difficult to find nurses willing to commit to a full-time schedule, and not because of the hours.

“It’s because of the workload,” Silas said, adding there’s no flexibility to balance work life and personal life when nurses are constantly working overtime, or being overloaded with more patients than they can help.

Silas, who has led the 200,000-member CFNU since 2003, helped organize a nation-wide day of action the week before the election. The “Done Asking” rally shed light on the crises facing nurses, from staffing shortages to overtime shifts as long as 24-hours. The rally also sounded the alarm on the 60 per cent of nurses planning to leave their jobs within the next year.

In the 1990s when Canada was facing a nurses and doctors shortage crisis, Silas noted the federal government took the lead by creating a Nursing Advisory Committee as well as a Nursing Workforce Council. She would like to see the new government make better decisions in the management of the delivery of care.

“Our health-care system is a national program and needs national leadership,” Silas said.

The workload needs to change, Silas says, “or we’re in danger of losing the bare, bare bones of our healthcare system.”

Postal workers forced to focus on delivering election

The gig economy has grown substantially throughout the pandemic, with more than one in ten Canadians on short-term contracts or freelance work. That might be good news for the businesses that rely on gig labour, but the instability and unreliability of gig work disproportionately affects workers who already live in precarity.

Jan Simpson, National President for the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, hopes the newly-formed federal government will take action legislating changes to the labour status of gig workers, who are in most cases classified as independent contractors. CUPW has been involved in organizing gig workers in their fight to be reclassified as dependent contractors (employees) so they can gain worker’s rights. 

Simpson stressed the need for legislation to protect the rights of gig workers, who don’t receive the same benefits, or often wage, as full-time unionized staff.

“We really need to come up with a special legislation to do change to stop having these workers be misclassified,” Simpson said in an interview, speaking of workers who miss out on wages and benefits due to being deemed independent contractors, temporary employees, or completing freelance work. “All workers need to have access to full rights with regards to health and safety, with pay and even pension.

“You don’t want to appear like a two-class two-tier system within our country,” Simpson said.

Silas also spoke of how postal workers were essential in running this election as they delivered voter information cards and mail-in ballots to electors. She hopes the new government recognizes the value of the postal service in an increasingly de-centralized post-pandemic economy.

“We saw a lot of progressives getting elected in their different areas, where many of them through the campaign actually supported our Delivering Community Power campaign,” Simpson said about the results.

The campaign advocates for the reimagining of Canada Post to both better serve each community in Canada but create sustainable and unionized jobs in postal service.

“They actually endorsed it so we’re looking forward to working with them to ensure that we continue to do the expansion of our services at Canada Post,” Simpson said.

Both Simpson and Silas called the timing of the election unnecessary, noting it would have been more productive for the Trudeau Liberals to table and pass legislation to both empower and preserve labour industries and their employees.

“I just feel it’s a real shame that they called this election when they should be focusing on getting people through the pandemic and not campaigning across the country,” Simpson said.

For Simpson, the true lesson from the pandemic election was that despite it being unnecessary, workers across a variety of sectors overcame additional barriers to ensure Canadians had access to their right to vote. The next step is holding the candidates who signed onto their campaign accountable in office.

“We have to ensure that they also understand the importance of protecting free and free and fair collective bargaining rights,” Simpson said. “Companies are using the pandemic to roll workers back, and we’re not going to be tolerant of that, either.”

Unions campaigning for change

While many unions sought to encourage every Canadian to exercise and access their right to vote, others took campaign approaches to highlight industry-specific needs and concerns.

Unifor, the largest private sector union in the country, went on a campaign blitz, canvassing in battleground ridings and encouraging voters to cast their ballot. The day before Election Day, Unifor’s organizers and volunteers managed to send nearly 23,000 get-out-the-vote text messages to members in 77 ridings across Canada. That’s not including the 25,210 doors knocked by a union volunteer that resulted in interactions with over 3,500 members.

“Through these conversations, we found that workers were most concerned about good jobs, affordability, and the care economy. That’s what members were thinking of when they went to the polls this fall,” said Chris MacDonald, Unifor assistant to the national president, in a Sept. 22 press release.

The Canadian Labour Congress, the country’s central labour body, centred its campaign on the implementation of national and affordable public child care, universal Pharmacare, fair tax reforms, permanent improvements to Employment Insurance programs, and an election overhaul that would see the first-past-the-post system replaced with mixed member proportional representation.

“The pandemic showed us how important frontline workers were in keeping our communities going. It also revealed the inequalities that already existed,” Bea Bruske, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, said in a Sept. 20 press release the day of the election.

“That’s why we are working doggedly to let people know that Canada needs a recovery plan with workers at its heart. Where lost jobs are replaced with better ones. Where our public health care system is strengthened. And where our social safety net is made ready for the next disaster.”

Stephen Wentzell is rabble.ca‘s national politics reporter, a cat-dad to Benson, and a Real Housewives fanatic. Based in Halifax, he writes solutions-based, people-centred stories.

Image: Mat Napo/Unsplash

Image: Gilad Cohen

Stephen Wentzell

Stephen Wentzell is rabble.ca‘s national politics reporter, a cat-dad to Benson, and a Real Housewives fanatic. Based in Halifax, he writes solutions-based, people-centred...